HAMPTON — The B-17 Flying Fortress was still a few years away from becoming an iconic workhorse of American air power in World War II when a flight of six planes took off from Langley Field on Feb. 16, 1938 for what would be a milestone intercontinental mission.
But the distinctive roar of their Cyclone 9 engines -- which generated some 22,500-horsepower all told -- was still so loud that spectators on the ground couldn't help but look toward the heavens.
Since the first B-17 arrived at Langley nearly a year before, the 2nd Bombardment Group had become a pioneer in long-distance flight training, beginning with a non-stop 1,700-mile flight over 20 American cities in May 1937, notes the 1977 Air Force history, "Langley Field: The Early Years."
But on Feb. 16 of the following year, the destination of the giant planes was even more ambitious than a 4,216-mile trip that a flight of Langley-based B-10B bombers had made to Panama in 1937.
Their target was distant Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Just a few months before, Washington officials worried about growing German and Italian influence in Latin America had watched with apprehension as three Italian bombers commanded by Bruno Mussolini -- the youngest son of the Italian dictator -- made a visit to Brazil.
In response, President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved the B-17 flight commanded by Lt. Col. Robert Olds and crewed by such soon-to-be prominent officers as 1st Lt. Curtis E. LeMay, who would become internationally known as the influential Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force in 1961.
Stopping at Miami, Panama and Lima, Peru, the bombers arrived at El Palomar Military Air Base in Argentina on Feb. 17 and conducted a flyover for the inauguration of President Roberto M. Artiz three days later.
They returned to Langley via Santiago, Chile, Lima and Panama, completing a nearly 11-hour flight direct from the Canal Zone on Feb. 27.
The 11,952-mile trip earned the Flying Fortress and the 2nd Bombardment Group extensive favorable attention from the Latin American press as well as at home.
It also won the 1938 Mackay Trophy as the Air Corps' "most meritorious flight of the year."
"This flight of over 10,000 miles was accomplished with a high degree of skill in pilotage, navigation and maintenance proficiency," Secretary of War Harry H. Woodring noted.
It also demonstrated to the world the potential of a warplane that would play a defining role in the Allied victory over Germany and Japan during World War II.