Turning the corner
While I was doing some extra research for last week’s Flying Boats article, I found this particularly historic photo of Boeing’s ‘big fours’ flying together.
The unique formation brings together the prototype B-17A, at this stage still the 14th Y1B-17 and the 15th Type 299 (c/n 1987), in formation with the prototype Type 314 Clipper, NX18601 (c/n 1988) – two massive projects that were built side by side, but only shared the Seattle skies for the winter of 1938.
In a very real sense, this was the moment that Boeing ‘went big’.
All on the line
Never a company that was afraid to lay it all on the line, Boeing saw off the Great Depression by staking its future on better days ahead. The business would gain something of a reputation for high stakes projects in future years, most famously for its 747 program in the late 1970s. But that wasn’t the first time.
Back in 1934, still smarting from having their 247 transport trounced by the Douglas DC family, Boeing had built the four-engined Type 299 ‘Flying Fortress’ prototype (c/n 1963) at its own expense.
To be fair, the USAAC underwrote some work through the concurrent Type 294 XB-15 project (c/n 1964). But Boeing’s still-substantial risk came dangerously close to being a total loss on October 30th, 1935, when the 299 crashed during just its second Army evaluation flight.
Without an aircraft to demonstrate, Boeing was disqualified from the bomber fly-off and left well out of pocket.
Incidentally, the loss of the Type 299, caused by its crew (Army test pilot Major ‘Pete’ Hill and Boeing’s chief test pilot Leslie Tower) neglecting to release the gust locks before take-off, would lead directly to the inception of cockpit checklists.
Back from the brink
Back in Seattle, it looked like the long-range bomber competition would be a repeat of Boeing’s earlier commercial transport defeat, as the Douglas B-18 Bolo was ordered into production over the Type 299. Fortunately, the Army had still been impressed by the Type 299’s potential, and managed to use a legal loophole to place an order for 13 evaluation examples on January 17th, 1936.
And, while all that was going on, Boeing was also responding to a request from Pan American’s Juan Trippe (who would also trigger its Jumbo Jet gamble thirty years later), for a new long-range flying boat. The result was another four-engined giant – the Type 314 ‘Clipper’ – which was formerly ordered on July 21st, 1936.
Boeing was back from the brink. But now it found itself building and refining two complex and completely different four-engined types at the same time.
No mean feat for a plane-maker that had kept its lights on through the Depression by producing single-engined, single-seat P-26 ‘Peashooters’!
War and Peace
All thirteen Y1B-17s (‘Y1’ to denote their ‘special’ financial year of order, ‘F1’) were completed and delivered by August 4th, 1937. A 14th airframe, originally built for static strength testing, was used to test a new exhaust-driven turbocharger installation as the Type 299F, tail number 37-369. Complications meant this aircraft didn’t fly until April 29th, 1938 – just over a month before the first 314 Clipper took to the air.
That delay created an unmissable photo opportunity and so, before the Y1B-17A (soon to be the only B-17A) was delivered on January 31st, 1939, the ‘big fours’ were flown together over the Evergreen State.
Here, against all the risks, were simultaneous solutions to four-engined military and commercial aviation… War and Peace.
As for Boeing, they would never build small airplanes again – and they would never look back.
These photos are part of the Paul Fedelchak Collection, in the San Diego Air & Space Museum archives. (Click to see all 90 images online.) Fedelchak was born in Brownsville, PA, on June 22nd, 1917 and served as an aerial photographer in the USAAC from 1939. His duties included service at Chanute Field, Washington, and in Alaska where he was involved in aerial surveys for the Alcan Highway. The photos in this article were loaned to the museum by Fedelchak’s family.