On December 29, 1939, 77 years ago today, the prototype of the Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber took to the air for its first flight in San Diego, California.
The video below is silent, so don’t adjust your speaker volume. Watch it in full-screen mode for best results.
At its inception, the B-24 was a modern design featuring a highly efficient shoulder-mounted, high aspect ratio Davis wing. The wing gave the Liberator a high cruise speed, long range and the ability to carry a heavy bomb load. Early RAF Liberators were the first aircraft to cross the Atlantic Ocean as a matter of routine. However, the type was difficult to fly and had poor low speed performance. It also had a lower ceiling and was less robust than the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. While aircrews tended to prefer the B-17, General Staff favored the B-24, and procured it for a wide variety of roles.
The B-24 was used extensively in World War II. It served in every branch of the American armed forces, as well as several Allied air forces and navies, and saw use in every theater of operations. Along with the B-17, the B-24 was the mainstay of the US strategic bombing campaign in the Western European theater. Due to its range, it proved useful in bombing operations in the Pacific, including the bombing of Japan. Long range anti-submarine Liberators played an instrumental role in closing the Mid-Atlantic Gap in the Battle of the Atlantic. The C-87 transport derivative served as a longer range, higher capacity counterpart to the Douglas C-47 Skytrain.
The B-24 was produced in very large numbers. At nearly 19,000 units, with over 8,000 manufactured by Ford Motor Company, it holds the distinction of being the most produced heavy bomber in history, the most produced multi-engine aircraft in history and the most-produced American military aircraft.
There’s more at the link.
The B-24 undertook some of the most difficult and dangerous missions of World War II, including the Ploesti oilfield raid in Romania and the remarkable long-distance raids on Balikpapan in Borneo in 1944 (about which I’ve written at some length). It also took on the burden of very-long-range anti-submarine patrols in the Atlantic Ocean, closing the so-called ‘Mid-Atlantic Gap‘ in 1943. Its transport variant, the C-87, played a major role in flying supplies over ‘The Hump‘ between India and China (also covered here in an earlier ‘Weekend Wings’ article).
There are only two airworthy B-24’s still surviving. That’s a pity, given its enormous importance to the US and Allied war effort.
The B-24 saw heavy use in the Pacific because, as one staff officer put it, "Range is King." The B-17 carried much of the load in Europe, particularly in the 8th Air Force, because it was a far more robust aircraft. Ironically, the examples of the Fort still flying were built by Douglas who normally built Civil aircraft, and so applied corrosion resistant treatments to the craft, where Boeing didn't.
At the end of WW2, B-24s were pretty much abandoned where they sat, where the 17s were mostly brought back to the states. The 24 could not maintain close formation because it's handling was not as stable as the fort, and the dangerous missions it handled, Ploesti being the most famous, were given to B-24 groups because of the distance to the target from the bases.
My wife's grandfather was a B-24 Pilot Trainer in the Army Air Core during WWII. They flew training runs to Cuba and back. He says some of the other officers used to bring back tires, ladies stockings, and other items effected by the rationing cards on their return flights. He was shipped over to California in early '45 in anticipation of being deployed in the Pacific theater, but the two atomic bombs ended the war and, thankfully, he was never deployed.
Standing in front of a B-24 is interesting. It has a glass nose (metal from with many plexiglass sections) from which several machine guns protrude, and then there's a cockpit a bit up and further back, behind which there's a turret with another pair of machine guns. It simply looks menacing, even when you're staring at an inert museum specimen of one.
Not all of the bombers have that same feel. A B-17 carries even more guns and looks lethal, but is sleeker and less menacing. The B-29 simply looks sleek. I'm not sure exactly how to put it.
It was also featured in the book 81 Days Below Zero: The Incredible Survival Story of a World War II Pilot in Alaska's Frozen Wilderness Paperback – March 1, 2016
A good read.
Actor James Stewart flew one during the war.
It amazes me how industry designed, built and mass produced the airplanes of WW2, using nothing more than paper, drafting tables and slide rules.
I know technology has come a long way…but taking years to make modern military planes "good enough" is ridiculous.