When this site is completed you will be able to click on each of the crew positions on the B-17 Flying Fortress to learn more about their duties.
- Pilot - 2nd LT George H. Davis- Aircraft Commander
- Co-pilot - 2nd LT Robert V. Turchette - Backup to the pilot, handled ground maneuvering
- Flight Engineer - T/SGT Dewitt H. Tyler - Top Turret Gunner, Engine Health Monitoring
- Navigator - 2nd LT Lee H. Dolan - Determine plane position relative to Earth
- Bombardier - 2nd LT Phillip E. Niewolak Deliver Payload on Target
- Radio Operator - T/SGT Peter K. Ivanovich - Communications handler
- Ball Turret Gunner -S/SGT David G. Secorski and Arthur N. Potter - Enemy Fighter Protection
- Waist Gunner - S/SGT Arthur N. Potter Enemy Fighter Protection
- Waist Gunner - Not assigned
- Tail Gunner- S/SGT Kenneth D. Cain Most Important Enemy Fighter Protection Position
Pilots duties and responsibilities
The pilot of the B-17 was the “aircraft commander.” Typically, he was a 21 year old, newly introduced to military life, as was the rest of the crew. He had just graduated from flight training school with little flight time and no experience. His job was to physically fly the airplane. He was assisted in doing this by the co-pilot assigned to the crew. Both pilots were expected to know the operational characteristics of the B-17 and the functioning of all its systems.
The pilot was also charged with ensuring that the training syllabus set up for the crew was accomplished and that each member of the crew received the training required.
|Cadets learned the skill of formation flying early in flight school|
The pilot was responsible for the individual operation of each and every flight the crew conducted, whether in the training phase or on combat missions. The course of action taken in any emergency was his decision to make. If time permitted, it was made with input from the pertinent crew members. In many instances the urgency of the situation did not permit such input until after the fact.
The combat crew of a B-17, or any other multiple crew aircraft, developed a rapport and a camaraderie; the tone of which was set, to a large degree, by the crew’s pilot.
Copilots duties and responsibilities
The Fortress, like other American medium and heavy bombers, was designed to carry two pilots, a requirement of all multi-engined US Army
aircraft. Other airforces considered this a waste of skilled manpower but the policy was thoroughly proven by the Americans in combat. The rigors of close formation flying for long periods of time would place tremendous physical and mental strain on a single pilot. For that reason alone the co-pilot or “guy in the right seat” was essential. There were many occasions when one pilot became a battle casualty and the presence of the second pilot saved the crew as well as the aircraft.
|Pilots had to fly tight formations with the B-17 if they were to survive in combat|
Prior to the start of a mission, after a ground inspection of the airplane, the crew would wait for the signal from the tower to start the engines. Once the signal was received the co-pilot would read the prestart check. Upon completion of the checklist the co-pilot would prime and start each engine. The engines would be warmed up at 1000 rpm. Prop feathering was checked at 1500 rpm. Each engine was then run up to test magnetos and turbos.
As the B-17’s started moving into position the crew would be watching for the tail number of the aircraft they would follow for take-off. Once their assigned plane was spotted the co-pilot would release the parking brake and roll on to the taxiway. The tail wheel lock situated on the cockpit floor was operated by the co-pilot and would have to be unlocked and locked often during taxiing, particularly on curved perimeter taxiways. When their time came for take off, the pilot would line up the plane and the co-pilot would lock the tail wheel. At this critical stage, the co-pilot had to keep his eyes on the instruments, as the pilot advanced the throttles. The co-pilot followed through with the throttle controls, taking them over from the pilot as soon as maximum power was reached. Normally, with a full bomb load, every bit of runway was used.
After takeoff, the pilot would call for gear up and as the co-pilot actuated the landing gear switch, he would also apply the brakes to stop the wheels from spinning. Once assembled in the formation, the co-pilot normally flew the plane as much as the pilot. The pilot in command had to have his eyes glued to his lead aircraft, even during fighter attacks and flak. The pilot that wasnt flying monitored the instruments and intercom.
After the bombing run on the return leg from the mission and when out of danger, the formation could loosen up. In the landing pattern, the co-pilot lowered the gear and flaps for touch down. Upon reaching the dispersal point the co-pilot would verify that all switches were off before leaving the aircraft.
|The flying ability of the pilots was often tested to safely bring home a damaged bomber and its crew|
Bombardiers duties and responsibilities
The basic principle of any bombing mission was to deliver the bombs accurately on the target. To navigate through clouds or to evade and counter the enemy’s defenses was an achievement in itself, yet everything depended upon the bombardier’s ability to hit his target. The bombardier’s main tool was the Norden bombsight, a top secret piece of equipment the Allies guarded throughout the war. On a mission, the bombardier’s real job began at the IP. This was the point at which the bombing run on the target began; from this point on, the bombardier would fly the airplane through the bombsight linked to the autopilot. The plane would have to be flown straight and level to the release point through flak and fighter attacks. Few, if any, bombers equalled the B-17 in visibility afforded to the bombardier. Sitting behind the bombsight in the plexiglas nose gave him an unrestricted view for his mission. The Norden simplified the bombardier’s job considerably by taking into account factors of altitude, airspeed, ground speed and drift to automatically calculate the bomb release point.
|Fortresses encounter flak on the bomb run|
The optical sighting mechanism of the bombsight was a small telescope. The bombardier would first locate the target by looking over the instrument and through the plexiglas nose. Once the target was located he would try to line it up in the telescope, often requiring several head up glances to find the target again. There were two cross hairs on the telescope, one to show drift left or right of the target, the other to show rate of closure. When the two indicators met the bomb would automatically release.
Originally the bombardier had a .30 caliber machine gun in the plexiglas nose but this was soon changed to a more effective .50 caliber. In late 1943, a powered chin turret was added to help combat frontal attacks and became standard equipment on the B-17G.
|B-17’s over the target
Navigators duties and responsibilities
Air navigation is simply defined as determining the position of an aircraft in relation to the earth. A task far from simple in practice, navigation is a highly exacting art demanding a quick mind and a knowledge of mathematical calculations. A navigator had to know the position of his aircraft at all times, even when guided by a formation-for in war, situations could change rapidly and a crew couldn’t afford not to know where they were over enemy territory. Navigation was the key to avoiding heavily defended areas, reaching the target and returning to base; the pilots flew the plane, but the navigator supplied the course they must fly. Navigation could be by pilotage (visual reference to the ground), dead reckoning (using true airspeed, winds aloft, heading and time to calculate new position from last known), radio, celestial, or any combination of these four.
The navigator’s table was fixed at the rear of the nose compartment, against the left side, behind the bombardier’s station. Above the table were mounted two vital instruments: the gyro- magnetic compass and to its right, the radio compass. The radio compass was linked to a rotating loop antenna inside a tear-shaped housing located just forward of the bomb bay and to a fixed sense antenna, slung along the bottom of the nose. The signal received by these atennas was presented visually on the compass face as a relative bearing to a radio station. On the opposite side from the table was the drift meter. This was used to determine the angle between the heading of the aircraft and its track over the ground. The amount of drift was essential in the calculation of the winds aloft element of dead reckoning.
Throughout the mission the navigator would inform the pilot of their position and time estimates to various check points. When the initial point was reached for the bomb run the navigator would then inform the pilot.
The navigator operated the two cheek guns in the nose when not at his regular duties.
Flight Engineers duties and responsibilities
The flight engineer was specially trained to have a wide knowledge of the bomber and its equipment. He was capable of servicing the aircraft if it landed away from its home base and he could perform most jobs handled by the ground crew. Along with his ability to maintain the airframe and engines, the engineer was also an armorer with a detailed knowledge of the aircraft’s guns and bomb racks. He had a working knowledge of all the aircraft systems and was a key figure in any emergency situation.
The flight engineer’s primary job was manning the B-17’s top turret in combat. His view from the top turret covered a 360 degree radius over the aircraft. The turret, positioned just aft of the pilot and co-pilot on the flight deck, gave him easy access to monitor the airplane’s systems. The early electric upper turret was particularly cramped with little head room but it later incorporated a higher dome with better visibility. The turret was controlled by two cycle-like hand grips. The left had the gun trigger and a safety lever. The right handle worked the range finder to the sight. Pulling the handles up elevated the guns and pushing them down brought them down. Pressure to the left or right rotated the turret in that direction. An interrupter stopped firing the gun if it was aimed in the propeller arc or at the tail.
|The top turret scanning the 6 o’clock position.|
At engine start and runup the flight engineer stood behind the pilots checking the fuel and engine gauges. During take-off he called off the airspeed so the pilot could concentrate on keeping the airplane straight down the runway. Once the airplane was airborne he would keep watch on the engine performance and the fuel consumption throughout the flight.
Radio Operators duties and responsibilities
The radio operator was isolated from the rest of the crew in the midsection of the bomber. He had a restricted view and usually had to sit at his receiver and sweat out the battle that raged outside. Yet he was a key member of the team, handling the communications equipment which frequently proved a life saver for the crew. One of the first jobs the radio operator did when entering his position was to tune in his equipment and make sure the frequencies were correct. The signal was strong at base, but thefurther away the mission ranged, the weaker the signal grew. All coded transmissions were sent or received by Morse code so even though the signal might be weak and contain static, the message could be understood. Each mission had a primary and secondary target; if the lead pilot decided the primary was a bad risk due to weather or adverse conditions he could elect to attack the secondary target. It was the duty of the radio operator to inform headquarters in a coded message which target was bombed and the bombing results. This information often affected the planning of the next day’s mission.
While the aircraft was en route the radio operator listened for any messages that might be sent from headquarters, such as a decision to abort the mission. Another function of the radio operator was to receive a radio fix for the navigator. The radio operator would hold his Morse key down and transmit a solid signal for approximately one minute. This signal was received at widely spaced installations with highly sensitive radio compasses. This signal was then read and a line projected on a map from various installations that would intersect to indicate the aircraft’s position. The same procedure could be used should a B-17 be forced to ditch at sea. If the plane was within friendly territory and went down, a distress signal was transmitted by holding the Morse key down and sending out this constant signal. The aircraft’s position was then given to air-sea rescue and the signal assisted in saving many crews.
The radio compartment was located between two bulkheads on the B-17: one directly behind the bomb bay and the other just forward of the ball turret. The radio operator sat facing forward on the left hand side of the aircraft with a work table in front of him. The liaison radio receiver and transmitting key were located on the radio operator’s table, while the liaison radio transmitter was mounted to the bulkhead directly behind him. These sets were used for long range communication in Morse code and were known as wireless telegraphy or W/T. On the right-hand side of the rear bulkhead were five transmitter tuning units.
|The radio room suffered flak damage on this B-17|
Located on the forward right side of the aircraft were two transmitters and three receivers for the command radio. Known as R/T (radio telephone), its purpose was as a short-range vocal communication with nearby air or ground stations. The pilots used the command radio by use of their controls mounted in the cockpit overhead. The radio operator was also trained as a gunner and manned a flexible .50 caliber machine gun out the top of his compartment. On early B-17’s the hatch was removed so the gun could be maneuvered. This let in the cold slipstream and made the radio operator’s duties very uncomfortable. Later B-17’s had an enclosed covering with the gun attached to a special swivel socket so the top hatch did not have to be removed. Under the floor of the radio room compartment was a large camera used to take photos of the bomb run. The radio operator activated the camera during the bomb run to take photos of the target area.
The radio operator was also trained as the first aid man of the crew. Other emergency equipment and tools were located in the radio room, considered to be the safest place in the aircraft during ditching or crash landing. In the event of such an emergency all crew members, except the pilots, would come to the radio room and sit with their backs toward the forward bulkhead.
Ball Turret Gunners duties and responsibilities
Most Flying Fortress crew members considered the ball turret the worst crew position on the aircraft. The confining sphere fastened to the underside of the aircraft required an agile occupant immune to claustrophobia and brave enough to be without a parachute close by.
The turret revolved a full 360 degrees, providing an extraordinary vantage point and covering the aircraft against attackers from below. Ironically, thought of as being the most dangerous position in a B-17, it turned out to be one of the safest-as far as suffering battle wounds. The gunner, curled up in the ball in a fetal position with his back against the armor plated door, had less of his body exposed to enemy fire than the other crew members.
The turret was stowed with the guns facing rearward for takeoff and landing. Once the aircraft was airborne, the turret would have to be cranked by hand to position the guns straight down, revolving the hatch inside the airplane. The ball gunner would then enter the turret, fasten his safety strap, turn on the power and operate the turret from inside.
The ball turret gunner would be hunched, legs bent, with his feet in stirrups on each side of the 13 inch diameter armored glass panel. His face was about 30 inches from this panel, and suspended in between was the optical display of the computing gunsight. A pedal under his left foot adjusted the red sight on this display and when a target framed within, the range was correct. While sighting, he would be looking directly between his knees. Two handles projected rearward above the sight and controlled movement of the turret. At the end of each handle was the firing button for both guns.
A ball turret gunner viewing the target watches as a
B-17, damaged by falling bombs, plunges out of control.
A badly damaged ball turret after flak exploded nearby.
Waist Gunners duties and responsibilities
The waist windows of the Fortress provided excellent defense stations; however, great skill or good luck was required to obtain strikes on an enemy fighter hurtling past. The waist guns were an important defensive feature of the B-17 formations, combining the open lateral areas with a gauntlet of massed firepower.
The waist gunners had flak helmets, flak suits and an armor plate contoured to the curve of the fuselage below the windows as their only protection from the flak and bullets. Standing at their guns, their bodies filled a larger target area than was the case for the rest of the crew, who were sitting or kneeling.
|An early fortress without the plexiglas covering the waist windows, behind which the gunners stood|
B-17’s carried two waist gunners; each protected his respective side of the aircraft. Waist gunners incurred the largest number of casualties of all the Fortress crew positions. Early waist gunner positions were directly across from each other, often causing the gunners to bump into one another and getting entangled in each other’s oxygen lines. Later, the positions were staggered, giving the gunners greater mobility. On early B-17’s, waist window coverings were on slide rails and had to be opened before combat so the guns could be swung out from their stowed positions. Improvements introduced on the B-17G mounted the guns to the inner frame of the windows and were enclosed with a permanent plexiglas covering, which meant the gunners didn’t have to stand in the freezing slipstream, as in earlier models.
|Formation of B-17’s mass all of their guns for protective firepower
Tail Gunners duties and responsibilities
The tail guns on the Fortress made their first appearance on the B-17E. Early Fortress models had no defensive armament in this area and enemy fighter pilots found the aircraft to be very vulnerable. Later, on the B-17G, the tail gun area was modified to what became known as the “Cheyenne” turret, which had a better angle of fire and increased visibility.
The gunners in the rear of the airplane would assemble in the radio room for takeoff and once the aircraft was airborne, they would take their combat positions. The tail gunner would take his parachute and crawl around the tail wheel. Once seated, he would plug in his heated flying suit, oxygen and intercom. The gunner took a kneeling position with his knees resting on padded supports and his legs doubled back.
The original gun emplacements were aimed by hand through a ring and bead sight outside, in front of the gunner’s window, and linked directly to the movement of the guns. The “Cheyenne” turret on the B-17G’s provided a wider angle of fire and was equipped with an improved reflector sight. An emergency escape door just below the horizontal stabilizer could be used by the tail gunner if he needed to bail out of his disabled Fortress. .
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