The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress is an iconic plane of World War II. The famous Memphis Belle, recently placed on display at the National Museum of the United States Air Force, was one of 12,677 B-17s built — but did you know the B-17 was close to never taking to the skies as a war plane?
During its second evaluation flight, the Model 299 (the prototype of the B-17) crashed. As a result, the Douglas B-18 Bolo was instead selected by the U.S. Armed Forces.
The B-18 was a variant of the successful DC-2 airliner. As a bomber, it wasn't bad, either: It could haul 4,400 pounds of bombs and had a maximum range of 1,200 miles. The plane had a six-man crew, a top speed of 223 miles per hour, and was equipped with three .30-caliber machine guns for defense.
The problem was that everyone knew that the B-18, which Douglas originally called the DB-1, won by default. The B-17 prototype had clearly out-performed the B-18 in the trials before the fateful crash — and the service test versions, called Y1B-17s, were even better than the crashed prototype. They could haul 8,000 pounds of bombs up to 3,320 miles at a top speed of 256 miles per hour. Despite the crash, it was emerging as the preferred choice.
The B-18 was indeed cheaper and the technology within was proven and safe. As a result, the Army Air Corps bought 217 B-18s. Some of these planes were sent to the Philippines and Hawaii to hold the line — until the B-17 was ready.
Three B-18s fly in formation near Hawaii prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor. On December 7, 1941, most were destroyed on the ground.
(Photo by Harold Wahlberg)
Despite winning the developmental competition, most officials didn't believe in these planes by 1940. During the attack on Pearl Harbor, the majority of America's B-18s were destroyed on the ground. The surviving airframes were then relegated to secondary roles. Over 120 B-18s were later modified to become maritime patrol planes — they defeated two German U-boats.
The B-18 did see most of its action in secondary roles.
The B-18s made its most significant contributions as a test platform. Some were modified to try a 75mm howitzer as an aircraft armament. Although the B-18 wasn't a suitable platform for the huge gun, the data collected helped make the weapon practical for the B-25G and B-25H, improved versions of the bomber that would later carry out the Doolittle Raid.
The United States Air Force has a B-18 at its national museum.
All in all, the B-18 had a much less storied career than the B-17, but it still had an honorable service career during World War II.
To see the plane that once beat the B-17 in action, watch the video below!