Another First Flight

On this date in 1939, the aircraft that would become the B-24 Liberator made its first flight. In its earliest incarnation, the airframe was known as the Model 32. It was manufactured by the Consolidated Aircraft Company, then located right down the road from us in San Diego, California.

The B-24 Liberator is a heavy bomber and a wartime contemporary of the B-17 Flying Fortress, B-25 Mitchell, and B-29 Superfortress. Of these, the B-17 was the first on the scene in 1935, and the B-25 and B-29 followed closely on the Liberator’s heels with their first flights in 1940 and 1942, respectively. These years were a period of furious engineering and development in aviation around the world. Eventually, the B-24’s manufacturer—Consolidated—merged, was sold, and then shut down as a division of McDonnell Douglas in 1996.

Among this group of heavy bombers of World War II, the B-24 remains a sort of underdog. Not surprisingly, however, most flyers have fond memories of the B-24 mount that carried them through the war. Even with the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia, the B-24 generates a fair amount of criticism (its aircrews objected to the plane’s propensity for catching fire) and maintains a reputation for being a demanding aircraft to fly (and even more demanding to abandon if something went awry).

Undoubtedly, some of the unfavorable flying characteristics ascribed to the B-24 were due to familiarity. Because the United States built and flew more B-24’s during World War II than any other aircraft type, there existed more room to complain. Somewhere between 18,000 and 20,000 B-24s were manufactured during the years 1941-1945, with one Liberator built every hour at the peak of production at the Ford facility in Willow Springs. This total number of B-24s represents slightly more than 6% of the 298,000 aircraft procured by the United States Army Air Forces during World War II.

Another significant focal point of the B-24’s flying characteristics was its short-chord Davis wing. Fragile and graceful in equal parts, the wing was designed by David R.  Davis in the late 1930s and adopted for use by Consolidated. Rueben H. Fleet, the head of Consolidated, who bought numerous designs from the Dayton-Wright Company when it was closed down by General Motors, wasn’t convinced by the claims made about the Davis wing. But after he paid for two separate tests in the wind tunnel at Caltech, he knew that the design actually did reduce drag and also provided considerable lift at low angles of attack. The efficiency of the Davis wing gave the B-24 a significant speed advantage over its primary rival, the Boeing B-17.

David Davis is also connected to another aviation figure that we’ve written about previously at Lofty Ambitions. Davis partnered with Walter Brookins to form the Davis-Brookins Aircraft Corporation. We’ve written about Walter Brookins already, for he’s buried at the Portal of Folded Wings here in California. He was a student of the Wright brothers’ sister, a connection that led him to become, after a few hours of Orville Wright’s instruction, the first civilian pilot. He’s the first person ever to fly a mile high.

Although we’ve seen a few B-24s on display in museums, we’ve seen only one aircraft that was still in flying condition. In the summers of 2002 and 2003, while Doug was pursuing his PhD at Oregon State University, the Collings Foundation brought its restored B-24J—then flying as the “The Dragon and His Tail”—to the Corvallis Municipal Airport. The aircraft’s paint scheme was changed to that of the “Witchcraft” in 2004. This Collings Foundation B-24 still tours the summer airshow circuit with the B-17G “Nine O Nine.”

Although “Nine O Nine” never served in the war, the aircraft had a fascinating life that dovetails with other posts that we’ve recently written here at Lofty Ambitions. In 1952, “Nine O Nine”—then known as “Yucca Lady”—was used as test apparatus at the Nevada Test Site during three separate nuclear weapons tests. “Nine O Nine” was allowed to cool down in the Nevada desert for thirteen years before being sold to a company that used the plane as an airborne fire fighter.

In Corvallis, we plunked down our hard-earned money and set foot on both “The Dragon and His Tail” and “Nine O Nine” twice. In each case, we were struck by the thinness of the metal skin, stretched taut between the aircraft’s structural ribbing like the drumhead of a snare drum, mere millimeters of aluminum that offered the crew little to no protection from the war. In flight, the temperature inside the aircraft might drop to fifty degrees below zero. The noise of the engines would reach a hundred decibels. The plane wasn’t pressurized, so crew would wear oxygen masks during long bombing runs. The walkway over the bomb bay was like a gymnastics balance beam, and if an airman fell, the bay doors wouldn’t hold.

Maybe we were predisposed to appreciate the B-24 more than the much-lauded, movie-star B-17. After all, the B-24 was George McGovern’s wartime aircraft. Of McGovern’s first encounter with the B-24, Stephen Ambrose (who ducked attribution scandal) writes in The Wild Blue, “In the fall of 1941 McGovern, then a sophomore with his flying classes completed, saw B-24 bombers for the first time. He watched them going overhead—they were based in Omaha, Nebraska—on practice missions. […] He saw no fighter airplanes, nor any B-17s. Ocassionally McGovern would see one or two B-24s land. They were big and cumbersome but impressive. He never got aboard one. He never thought, Someday I’m going to fly one of those birds. But he noticed and did think, Those pilots are really something.”

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