The Flying Fortress’ Fatal Flaw

“Guts and backbone of our aerial offensive.”

“She’ll not only get you to the target and do the job, but she’ll fight her way out, take terrific punishment and get you safely home…”

“It’s a regular Fortress…a fortress with wings…”

“Too much airplane for any but super-pilots…”

These were just some of the statements used to describe the B17 Bomber, a.k.a. The Flying Fortress, a menace in the sky and the pride of the US Army Air Corp in World War II. Pilots would navigate the skies, weaving through and tearing down Japanese and German forces, surviving shrapnel and bullets, before making it back as “…a series of holes held together by ragged metal”. There was only one problem.

They just could not seem to stick the landing.

The plane that could hold a crew of 10 —pilot, co-pilot, bombardier, navigator, flight engineer and 5 gunners — and could take down the enemy in a rugged flying fortress, was unable to land without a strange phenomenon occurring. On coming in to land, the wing flaps would slow the plane down…and it would then hit the runway, skid and keel over, leaving carnage in its path.

The landing gear wouldn’t descend.

This went on for a while and the incidents piled up — pilots misreading dials, pilots falling out of the sky because they could not tell which side was up when flying, pilots unable to read instruments clearly and even an instance of a pilot running a plane up and down the runway during an attack, because the cockpit instruments had been rearranged in what was a new model and he couldn’t figure out how to fly.

Carnage of a crashed B17 Bomber

Whether it was stress or trauma, incompetence or freak accidents, pilots were taking the blame for the accidents that were causing damage to machinery worth thousands of dollars and more importantly, the death of crew members.

It took the end of the War and intervention of Air Force Psychologist Paul Fitts and his Aviation Psychologist colleague Alfonse Chapanis, to realise that if it were in fact pilot error, the accidents would be random. Instead, data gathered through records and pilot interviews revealed that in 22 months, there had been at least 400 crashes of a similar nature. After interviewing pilots who had survived the crash, they finally decided to investigate the cockpit…and what they found changed the course of aviation forever.

Chapanis found that the controls for the Wing Flaps and Landing Gear looked exactly the same AND were positioned close to each other.

So close to each other in fact, that exhausted pilots approached the runway and flipped the switch for what they believed to be the landing gear, but instead flipped the wing flaps switch, slowing their descent and then grounding the plane.

(Left — right): Switches for Landing Gear & Wing Flaps

This breakthrough led to the coining of the term “Designer Error”, essentially absolving the pilots of blame. Chapanis went on to pioneer ‘Shape Coding’, a system that ensured all knobs and levers were different shapes and sizes, redesigning the cockpit and ensuring there was little to no room for confusion for pilots reaching for their controls. No similar incidents took place after this adjustment.

Today, not only are the two controls fairly far apart in the cockpit, the lever for the Flaps is large and squared, while the Landing Gear’s knob is shaped like a wheel — as recommended by Chapanis.

(Left — right) Levers for Landing Gear, Wing Flaps, Cockpit with new Levers

The redesign of the B17 was the first time it dawned on creators that machines be made to fit human needs instead of the other way around. It was this idea that inspired the Macintosh, back in 1984.

One of the first print ads launched for the Macintosh read, “If you can point, you can use a Macintosh”…starkly different from the 1935 Pilot Manual’s description of the Flying Fortress — “…too much airplane for any but super-pilots”.

In a span of 50 years, thinkers like Alphonse Chapanis changed the course of human interaction with technology.

Early print ads for the Macintosh

Whether it’s the design of a fighter plane in the 1930s or of computers in the 1980s, one thing remains constant — aesthetics and ruggedness only get you so far. Alphonse Chapanis and his colleagues dared to think differently — why should humans struggle to fit the requirements of machines, when they can be taught otherwise?

At BRND Studio, we are an astute group of creators using Design Thinking to address complex, ambiguous problems and build solutions. Keeping an eye on the total experience, we aim to consistently deliver intuitive products.

We are constantly looking for stories that inspire and drive us, ones from the past that inform the future. The story of the World War II Flying Fortress is one of those stories. What at first seemed to be a cautionary tale for engineers and pilots, turned out to be the origin of human factors design — a story that changed the aviation industry and also the world’s approach to human’s interaction with technology .

This story is an introduction to a remarkable man- Alphonse Chapanis. Next week, we’ll share his story with you.

Manuel Saez said, “Great designs are those that successfully balance beauty and function in the context they are going to be used”.

We couldn’t agree more.

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Amendments: A few details were pointed out as errors in our story — the same have been rectified above.

  1. US Army Air Corp, changed from US Air Force
  2. 10 crew members, changed from 7
  3. Thousands of dollars, not hundreds
  4. The pilot was not looking for control to open fire in the new airplane, as the pilots did not have gun control