While the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress was arguably one of the most important aircraft designs of the Second World War, even the best designs can be improved. Combat experience against the Luftwaffe over Europe identified the need for several potential modifications suggested by the crews. The job of evaluating those changes was given to Major Robert J. Reed. Reed was sent to Wright Field in Dayton, Ohio and given B-17E 41-9112 to experiment on.
Reed replaced much of the B-17E defensive armament with components already in production for the Consolidated B-24 Liberator. The most obvious changes were mounting powered turrets in the nose and tail positions. Jagdwaffe pilots had identified the hand-held nose armament as a weak point in the Fortresses defenses, and the tail position had a very restricted field of fire. The Liberator turrets remedied both these problems at a stroke.
With the nose position now occupied by a turret the bombardier was moved to a gondola under the nose, similar to the original design of the Boeing Model 299. From this position the bombardier could also function as navigator which freed up a crew position. Like many Fortresses, the Dreamboat featured her own artwork.
The radio operator was moved to the nose compartment and a powered twin .50 caliber mount was installed in the old radio compartment. This eliminated both single waist gun positions while increasing the “broadside” firepower which could be brought to bear defending against a beam attack. Shifting the crew and equipment weight forward also helped correct a balance problem in the Fortress – the center of gravity was aft of the center of lift, resulting in the Fortress being tail heavy and fatiguing to fly.
Reed completely redesigned the bomb bay doors. Instead of two large doors which opened into the slipstream when opened, the new bomb bay doors folded back against the fuselage sides. This not only reduced drag but was also less noticeable to intercepting Luftwaffe pilots who knew the big bombers were restricted in their ability to maneuver while on their bomb runs.
The hybrid bomber was named the “Dreamboat”. One of the more important changes was not apparent when looking at the aircraft from the outside. The B-17 crew’s oxygen system was adequate, but hypoxia was potentially fatal if the system suffered damage. Reed installed a dual-feed system on the Dreamboat which increased capacity and provided redundancy, a potentially life-saving modification.
The Dreamboat never saw combat, but was returned to England. Combat crews were enthusiastic about the improvements – defensive firepower and fields of fire had been improved, crew requirements were reduced from ten to eight, the CG problem had been solved, and the oxygen system and bomb bay doors were improved.
In the end, the modifications demonstrated on the Dreamboat were not adopted for factory production. A premium was placed on quantity production above all else, it was felt that the changes suggested by Major Reed would prove to be too much of a disruption to the production lines, and the modifications were too extensive to be performed at the depot level. The Dreamboat would remain a dream.
XB-38 Flying Fortress prototype here: