Boeing’s big moment

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.

Built together – Boeing the first B-17A c/n 1987 and the prototype 314 Clipper c/n 1988 – fly together over Puget Sound on November 24th, 1938. (Paul Fedelchak Collection | SDASM)

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’.

A nice look at NX18601 during the same sortie. The two vertical fins on the ends of the tail planes were only added after the first flight, to improve directional stability. (Paul Fedelchak Collection | SDASM)

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.

Another fascinating formation – the giant XB-15 with Boeing’s 1930s mainstay, the diminutive P-26 ‘Peashooter’. With its 149 ft (45.4m) wingspan, the XB-15 made even the B-17 (103ft/31.4m) look kinda small. (Paul Fedelchak Collection | SDASM)

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.

The aircraft the Army chose instead… a line-up of Douglas B-18 Bolos on September 14th, 1938. Most B-18s were destroyed on their Hawaiian and Philippine bases in the first few days of the Pacific War. (Paul Fedelchak Collection | SDASM)

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.

The original thriteen Y1B-17s were re-designated B-17 and served with East Coast squadrons into the early war years. Here, they overfly NYC in 1939. (Paul Fedelchak Collection | SDASM)

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.

Yet to become a 1940s icon, the gleaming and very 1930s-looking Y1B-17A on another shoot near Mount Ranier, WA, dated February 28th, 1938. (Paul Fedelchak Collection | SDASM)


A closer view of NX18601. The aircraft would be upgraded to 314A specification with larger engines and extra fuel capacity, and enter service as NC18601 ‘Honolulu Clipper’. (Paul Fedelchak Collection | SDASM)
P-26As of the 20th Pursuit Group, photographed on May 13th, 1938. The handy P-26 had a 28 ft (8.5m) wingspan and sported a single 600HP (450kW) R-1340 radial engine. (Paul Fedelchak Collection | SDASM)

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.

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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.

Big thinking… The vastness of the XB-15 shows to good effect in this view. The airplane proved a dismal performer, but its technology would inform the B-17 and Clipper programs, and eventually lead to the B-29 Superfortress. (Paul Fedelchak Collection | SDASM)

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.

7 thoughts on “Boeing’s big moment

  1. It’s amazing how often a control lock is left installed — by a professional crew, no less. There was the Gulfstream IV a couple of years ago, the famous B-17 prototype, and many others. I recall a DeHavilland which took off with test pilots on board and the control lock installed. Very sad. And so completely unnecessary.

    1. There are so many pilots who act like reciting checklists from memory makes them look more experienced and professional. Some of my instructors did it and I was suitably impressed. And some were EXTREMELY experienced… But even if they did it perfectly 1,000 times, screwing up number 1001 could kill them just the same – as the examples you give prove. It’s not a risk I feel like taking. I prefer checklists printed, laminated and in my face.

    1. Thanks! Gwen’s so right – PG Taylor has been overlooked for far to long; his contributions to Kingsford-Smith’s and QANTAS’ fame are beyond measure.

  2. I’ve always loved the sleek lines of the B-17. It’s probably one of the most breathtaking sights. To see it’s huge vertical stabilizer for the first time in person litterly takes or breath away!
    And by the way, I really like the photo of the month for this month. 🙂

    1. Yes, there’re a beautiful and functional design. As always, the original vision – the X and Y models – are always the most beautiful, before a variety of equipment and extensions get hung onto the airframe.
      Despite over 12,500 being built, it’s an incredible privilege to see a B-17 in the flesh today. Especially a flying example. It’s a pleasure I’ve not (yet) had, so enjoy how lucky you are!

  3. The amazing thing that really doesn’t get commented on too much these days is that 17s, 24s, 25s, and 26s were essentially built for “kids”. Most pilots and copilots would be, what, 25 or 26, at oldest? With maybe a 23 year old on average as an aircraft commander.

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