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Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Liberator's First Flight, December 29, 1939

Today in 1939, the Consolidated B-24 Liberator took off on it's maiden flight. Designed as a heavy bomber, more Liberators were built than any other American combat aircraft of the Second World War. It flew with most of the Allied air forces and saw action in both the European and Pacific theaters.

In January, 1939, the US Army Air Corps (the predecessor of the Air Force) ordered a design study for an aircraft with greater speed and range than the B-17 Flying Fortress. The B-17 was the main heavy bomber of the Air Corps, but the Army's General Staff believed a better aircraft was needed. Consolidated Aircraft of San Diego, California submitted a design and was awarded a contract in March. The managers at Consolidated received another piece of news that month: the prototype needed to be ready before the end of the year.

The B-24's maximum overload takeoff weight was 71,000 pounds, making it one of the heaviest aircraft in the world at that time. It had thin, long wings (six feet longer than the B-17's) and a twin tail. Top speed was 290 miles per hour. It could carry a larger bomb load than the B-17 with slightly greater range during actual operations. The first Liberator, designated XB-24, flew two days before the Army-imposed deadline: December 29, 1939.

The war in Europe was raging by the time the Liberator flew. The first production models were sold to the British Royal Air Force, where they were used for transport duty and anti-submarine patrols. Using radar and the Leigh Light, air crews could track German U-boats on the surface both night and day. In total, Liberators were credited with 72 U-boat kills during the war.

The B-24 was not actually used as a bomber until 1942, when two RAF squadrons flew them in the Middle East. American pilots first flew the Liberator in combat in June of that year when 13 aircraft bombed the Romanian oil fields at Ploiesti. The mission only served as a warning to the Germans defending the area. When the oil fields were bombed a year later 54 of 177 aircraft were lost. The Liberator was dubbed "The Flying Coffin" by some pilots because the only exit from the craft was in the rear. To get there, the flight crew and nose gunner had to squeeze between the bomb racks, a feat that was almost impossible while wearing a parachute.

B-24s were initially built at Consolidated's San Diego facility. As the war raged on and the demand for the bombers increased, more plants were built or converted for the task. The cities of Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas, Tulsa, Oklahoma and Detroit, Michigan all supported plants which built the Liberator. The Willow Run plant near Detroit, built by Henry Ford, was the largest factory in the United States.

As different variants of the B-24 went off to war, it became harder and harder to service them. Not only was the 'D' variant different in significant ways from, say, the 'H' variant, but the same variants built at different factories would sometimes use slightly different parts for some systems. Supply officers in Europe and the Pacific had to keep an enormous stock of parts on hand in order to keep all the birds flying. In 1944, three factories stopped producing the Liberator. This helped the parts discrepancy problem immensely.

By the end of the Second World War, 18,482 Liberators had been built. 13,000 went to the US Army Air Corps, 1,000 to the US Navy, 2,100 to the Royal Air Force, 1,200 to the Royal Canadian Air Force and 287 to the Royal Australian Air Force. A single-tailed version of the B-24, dubbed the PB4Y-2 Privateer, was also built for use by the US Navy and accounts for an additional 800 aircraft.

After the war, Liberators were sold to well over a dozen countries. As of today, only three are in flying condition; the dozen or so others which remain are on static display.

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