We are reminded ceaselessly of how crucial breakthroughs like bronze weapons, longbows, the stirrup, gunpowder, rifles, the airplane, the submarine, the machine gun, and many other technologies changed the face of warfare and often became deciding factors on the battlefield. Not mentioned as often are the failures, the brilliant ideas that were not so brilliant, the technological dead ends, the badly conceived or badly employed weapons that either had no effect or actually contributed to defeat. “Brilliant Mistakes” is a continuing series covering failed concepts, weaponry, tactics, and strategies, all of which probably seemed like a good idea at the time.
Today, historians have a wealth of knowledge about the YB-40, the World War II aircraft that appears to qualify as the U.S. Air Force’s first gunship.
This modified B-17F Flying Fortress bristled with gun barrels and was sent forth to guard American bomber formations high over Europe. What is missing from its history is the name of its creator. Who thought up the YB-40?
The AAF launched a program for a “flying destroyer” or “flying hedgehog” that would guard against Luftwaffe fighter attacks by filling the sky with a giant storm of machine-gun rounds.
“The record is unclear,” said Rob Young, a historian at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio. “It appears the YB-40 meets the definition of a donkey – that is, a horse designed by a committee.”
During the early period of the bombing campaign in Europe in 1942 and 1943, aggressive Luftwaffe fighter pilots began attacking American bombers from straight ahead at five degrees above the centerline, the position the Americans called “Twelve o’clock high” and where the fewest guns could be brought to bear against the attacking fighters. This tactic was intended to knock a bomber out of the sky by killing its pilots – and it worked. At one juncture a bomber crew was said to have at best a fifty-fifty chance of surviving its assigned 25 missions. Long-range fighters were not yet available to escort the bombers to their targets, so the Army Air Forces, or AAF – predecessor of today’s U. S. Air Force – searched for another way.
The AAF launched a program for a “flying destroyer” or “flying hedgehog” that would guard against Luftwaffe fighter attacks by filling the sky with a giant storm of machine-gun rounds. In August 1942, the AAF contracted with Vega Aircraft Corp. to modify the second production B-17F (aircraft no. 41-24341) to become the first XB-40. The aircraft probably should have been given a “P” for “pursuit” designation because it was now more like a fighter than a bomber and no longer had a bomb bay, bombs, or bombardier.
Vega fitted the aircraft with a chin-mounted nose turret – later to become standard on B-17G Flying Fortress models – and an additional Glenn L. Martin turret at the rear of the dorsal cockpit fairing where the radio operator’s single .50 caliber machine gun was usually mounted. Likewise, the waist gunners’ single .50s were replaced by twin mounts. Ammunition supply was almost triple that of a standard B-17F, some 11,275 rounds compared to 3,900 rounds on a B-17F.
The XB-40 made its first flight on Nov. 10, 1942. It’s significant that this was just a month ahead of the Rolls-Royce Merlin-powered P-51B Mustang, which would end up protecting bombers using different methods.
With its added guns and triple load of ammunition the YB-40 was ungainly, bulky, tail-heavy and unmaneuverable – the whole nine yards and more.
The XB-40 (X for “experimental”) was followed by an order for 13 YB-40 aircraft (Y signifying “service test”), which had minor differences but were equally heavily gunned and were meant to escort bombers all the way to their targets and back.