Ask any pilot what he thought was the best aircraft and his opinion may depend upon the type of aircraft he was trained in. You train in a particular aircraft, fly it operationally, and you get to know its nuances and learn how to use them to your advantage. When its time to change you're reluctant, you're comfortable with what you have and don't see change as a good thing. Many fighter groups tried to keep the P-38s or P-47s when the new P-51 became available. Bomber pilots were no different when it came to trading in their B-24s for the B-17.
The B-24 was a faster plane having a greater range and payload capacity. However, in the ETO, the B-24 operated with the B-17 which constrained the aircraft's operating speed. The B17 was a sedate aircraft and placed fewer demands on the flight deck crew. The B-17 was also an easier aircraft to fly in formation. On the other hand, the B24 demanded constant attention causing extreme fatigue in pilots on long missions. The Davis wing had a thinner cord, was shorter in depth and slightly longer. This gave the B24 its increased operating speed and better fuel efficiency. The Clark wing used in the B17 did give this aircraft a lower stall speed, but the thicker cord increased drag limiting top-end speed. The higher lift generated by the Clark wing also gave the B17 a higher operational altitude. This provided a greater margin for the pilot on take offs, or if the aircraft was damaged and had a greatly reduced airspeed. The B17 could be operated at speeds as slow as 135 mph, whereas the B24 became dangerous below 160 mph.
Both aircraft could take a beating and still fly. Still, the design of the B24 did place limits on its ability to safely perform emergency landings. The high mounted wing of the B24 placed large stresses on the air frame. A wheels up landing on land was not recommended in the B24. Ditching at sea was no trivial task either. The high mount wings provided little support in a water landing. Moreover, the longer bomb bay gave little support for the aircraft's midsection. Often times a B24 would break in two on hitting the water and sink rapidly. This gave the crew little time to egress. In contrast, the low mounted wing of the B17 was able to absorb some of the forces of a wheels up landing or a ditch. At the same time minimizing the stresses it placed on the fuselage. B17s could stay afloat after putting down at sea. In one case, a crew abandoned a B17 in trouble over england. The aircraft was put in autopilot while the crew escaped. Surprisingly the aircraft continued to fly across England until it ran out of fuel. The autopilot put the airplane down in the North Sea in one piece, and the B17 remained afloat. P-51s had to be dispatched to sink the Fort because it had become a hazard to navigation.
Comfort is a consideration as well. The nose of the B24 was particularly cramped. The navigator and bombardier shared their compartment with the nose wheel, and the addition of the nose turret didn't help. The navigator and bombardier had to crawl over each other to man their positions and visibility was reduced. The nose compartment of the B17 was much better and the large glass nose gave excellent visibility. The cockpit of the B24 was roomier and had somewhat better visibility. Heating in the B24 was provided by gasoline heaters, and electric heaters in the B17. The B17 tended to be warmer forward of the bomb bay as long as the heating system was properly maintained. Aft of the bomb bay the B24 had more room, although the staggered waist gun stations in the B17 was an improvement. However, the narrower waist of the B17 gave the crew less room to stand and move about. The flight engineers of both aircraft manned the top turret. The B17 top gunner had to stand while operating the turret. The B-24 top gunner was able to sit. The tail was a big difference as well. The tail gunner in a B-17 sat in a confined space on a bicycle seat with his legs folded underneath him. The B-24 gunner sat in a turret and had more freedom of movement.
Overall, both aircraft performed well. The B17 was, perhaps, best suited for service in the ETO. Its ability to fly higher put it out of reach of most the AAA batteries. In the PTO the B24 was not required to fly as high, nor was it constrained by operating with the B17. In this regard, the B24 was used to better advantage in the pacific.
Source: "The War Stories of the O&W," but Dick Wood and Bob Bee (486th BG) and John C. Albanese (833rd/486th BG).
B17 | Bombers | B24
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