B-24J N224J, serial no. 44-4405 "All
American," operated by the Collings Foundation, later repainted and renamed "The
Dragon and His Tail," and now called "Witchcraft." Photo by Patrick Bunce.
History: Life for the
B-24 heavy bomber began in 1939, when the U.S. Army Air Corps initiated a request for a
new bomber designed to exceed the performance of the B-17. Consolidated Aircraft responded
quickly with its proposal, labeled Consolidated Model 32 and, on
March 30 of 1939, was awarded the contract. One day short of nine months later, on
December 29, 1939, the first flight of the XB-24 bomber
prototype took place.
Slightly smaller than the B-17,
the turbosupercharger-equipped B-24 flew farther with a bigger bomb load than the much
more publicized Boeing aircraft. Of seven service-test YB-24s,
six were sent to the Royal Air Force (RAF) under the export designation LB-30A.
Because they lacked turbosuperchargers and self-sealing fuel tanks, the RAF found them
unsuitable for combat duty over Europe. Instead, they were stripped of their armament and
put into service as transports on the Trans-Atlantic Return Ferry Service, which had been
established to send air crews to Montreal to take delivery of American aircraft consigned
to the British war effort.
Flying for the Army Air Corps as the B-24,
and the U.S. Navy as the PB4Y-1, the plane also saw service in
the Royal Air Force where it was known simply as the Liberator.
There was also a transport version known as the C-87, one of
which was Winston Churchill's personal aircraft, carrying him to historic meetings at
Moscow and Casablanca, among other locations.
Before the last one was retired from Air Force service in 1953, the
plane was produced in variations ranging through type M. The various model numbers were
often the result of minor changes, like the relocation of internal equipment, but one
major revision, the conversion of the standard Navy B-24 (PB4Y-1) to the PB4Y-2 Privateer, involved a significant
rework that exchanged the familiar twin tail for a single tall tail fin and rudder
combination. It also had a stretched forward fuselage that placed the pilot's compartment
well in front of the un-turbocharged Pratt & Whitney R1830-94 Twin Wasp engines.
Among the features that distinguished the B-24 from the B-17 were
its tricycle landing gear (the first installed in a heavy operational aircraft), the
mid-mounted, high-lift Davis wing that achieved 20 percent less drag than conventional
airfoils of the time, twin tail fins, oval-shaped engine cowlings necessitated by the
mounting of turbosuperchargers, unique roll-up bomb bay doors that reduced drag
considerably when open, and a fully retractable ventral machine gun turret. The B-24 was
also the first to employ Hamilton hydromatic quick-feathering three-blade propellers.
While designed as a heavy bomber, the B-24
experienced more than 100 modifications and conversions for such assignments as
photography, mine laying, and cargo hauling (including a C-109
fuel tanker version that flew "the Hump" to refuel B-29s operating out of
forward bases in China). More than 18,000 B-24s were built during WWII, more than any
other American aircraft. Given its abilities and "convert-abilities," the
numbers make perfect sense. However, a postwar attempt to combine portions of the B-24 and
PB4Y-2 with a new fuselage to create the Convair Model 39 airliner was not a commercial
success, with only one prototype being built.
Of the many thousands of B-24s and derivatives built, only
three remain airworthy, all in the United States.
B-24 Liberator: Rugged
(Walter J. Boyne Military Aircraft Series)
By Frederick A. Johnsen
Hardcover, 144 Pages
Published 1999 by McGraw-Hill
This rare assemblage of wartime records, memories, photos, personal and
military histories, and in-depth technical insight brings the B-24 back to life. Written
by Air Force historian and world-leading B-24 expert Frederick A. Johnsen, and based in
part on his vast personal collection of B-24 lore and memorabilia, this book covers the
aircraft's design and construction, its full combat history, and recounts airmen's unique
memories and personal snapshots of combat in the skies and on the ground.