Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress Liberty Belle: Airborne American History
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Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress Liberty Belle: Airborne American History

A description of the contribution of the Boeing B-17 to the war effort in World War II, and of the Liberty Belle aircraft currently operated by the Liberty Foundation.

World War II represented some of the largest advances in military and aviation technology in all of history. Jet engines, rocket engines, all-metal riveted planes, and a number of other advances all were seen during the war. Heavy bombers were another new concept utilized during the war. Airframe technology and aircraft engine size and power did not allow aircraft to perform this role before World War II. At the time of the war, heavy bombing was most often used by the Allied powers (with aircraft like the American B-17 and British Lancaster) in an effort to project force into Europe at a lower cost than a full invasion and attempt to break the economic back of Hitler's Thousand Year Reich.

Before World War II started, military planners recognized the important role that air power would likely play. The backbone of most European bomber commands was medium bombers, which typically had a twin-engine design. They were quicker and cheaper to manufacture, but their maximum payloads, range, and durability were typically far less than the heavy bomber concepts emerging out of Britain and the United States. Indeed, heavy bombers were designed for a specific mission which utilized these attributes: fly deep into hostile territory (often far outside of the range of fighter escorts) and pulverize specific enemy targets, then fly back out and survive.

The B-17 Flying Fortress, along with the B-24 Liberator, formed the backbone of the Bomber Command in the U.S. Army Air Corps. The Fortress was aptly named: it possessed 13 .50 caliber machine guns mounted in various positions and had a fantastic amount of armor and durability. Some B-17's returned to base after bombing missions with extreme damage, including missing over 90% of the tail, various pieces of the fuselage, and having three out of four engines failed from enemy fire. Bomber crews quickly came to love the durability of the aircraft.

B-17 Flying Fortresses such as the Memphis Belle found their way into popular consciousness in the form of movies like Memphis Belle (appropriately honoring the service of the aircraft which bore the name). After the war, most of the heavy bombers of World War II were quickly scrapped in favor of larger heavy bombers such as the B-29 and finally the B-52 (which is still utilized today). The Liberty Belle (#42-30096) took a different path, however. The Liberty Belle served with the 390th Bomb Group in the European Theater, when a lucky shot from a German flak gun hit the bomb bay on one of the bombers of the group, destroyed 6, and grounded two more of the bombers. The Liberty Belle was the only aircraft to make it back to base from the incident, and served a successful career in World War II before being lost in an accident off of Wake's Colne. 

A Liberty Belle II was christened to replace the original aircraft, and served for the remainder of World War II. It would be aircraft #44-85734 that would survive, however, and be recreated with parts from another bomber by the Liberty Foundation. The aircraft was never utilized in the war, but instead sold for scrap metal, and then sold to Pratt & Whitney for use as a turboprop engine testbed from 1947 to 1967. Eventually, the Liberty Foundation was created to adopt the bomber.

Today, the Liberty Foundation operates the aircraft as a flying World War II memorial. For a fee, people can board the aircraft for a short air tour on board the heavy bomber, and get the feeling of flying in a 7 to 9-man bomber crew. The Liberty Belle is truly a piece of American history, and recalls the hazards and triumphs of the heavy bombing campaigns of World War II.


Picture is the exclusive property of Lindsey LaBarge; used by permission. Request permission for use at

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Comments (2)

Very interesting read and great title.

Thank you! It's definitely the title I put the most thought into.