Not your typical view

This isn’t something that’s ever come up before here, but I’m a little bit of an aviation enthusiast, especially World War II. The air war in Europe and the Pacific was a unique period in history, in a niche that combined powerful aircraft with personal combat, something not seen with the slow, flimsy craft of WWI, and that vanished in the jet age. There’s also something special about the engines of that time – throaty, deep-voiced piston monsters. I remember long ago in central New York, hearing the bass growl of four rotary bomber engines approaching and watching a Consolidated B-24 Liberator passing overhead – there’s simply no other sound like it, not even close. Years later on, I found out too late that there was a small fly-in taking place in the airport behind where I worked, unable to take any time off to visit it. A fellow enthusiast and I stood in the parking lot after work and listened to a North American P-51 Mustang take off and fade into the distance, disappointed that it didn’t even fly out on the runway near our end. We didn’t know that the pilot had circled around for a close pass until just before the plane reappeared at less than 500 feet and better than 300 knots, hurtling down the flight line at a velocity that put everything else out of that airport to shame, emitting a howl that could be felt in your chest.

Yes, that's me
Yes, that’s me
In reading the details about the aircraft in the upcoming video, I noted that they said it was the only flying B-24J in existence – since I’d seen a B-24 go over in New York, and had walked around one at a show several years later in North Carolina, I had to wonder if it was the same one. Alas, my attention to detail was lacking; upon a little research, I discovered that the crucial bit was the “J” model, introduced late in the war – there are other models around, and I had seen the Commemorative Air Force’s B-24A at the one show, and likely overhead as well. The organizations that display the classic warplanes are like that; their income (and thus the ability to maintain the aircraft) is in part promoted by the uniqueness of the experience, so small distinctions like model are exploited.

Anyway, the video. Someone talked a crewmember of the Collings Foundation into attaching a GoPro video camera to the end of a gun barrel on the retractable belly turret of this (only flying) B-24J, and produced a fascinating perspective of this aircraft in operation.

The first noticeable bit is that the wind noise unfortunately overrides the marvelous sound of those engines. The second thing is the impression of being a rickety crate that comes from watching the vibration and flexing of the fuselage – except that it’s not the fuselage that’s moving, but the gun turret to which the camera is attached. It’s not surprising (or bad) that the turret has some play, because it has to traverse a wide field of fire and is supported by a single hydraulic column rising vertically in the center of the aircraft.

There are some details I’d like to draw attention to in the video. I’m not sure why the camera was mounted facing towards the turret rather than in the direction the guns faced, but it allowed us to see things like the cartridge chute underneath the barrel for ejecting the empty bullet casings, and the pair of dice suspended inside the ball turret (showing snake eyes.) The gun barrels themselves are shrouded in heat dissipating sheaths; .50 caliber (12.7mm) machine guns generate ridiculous amounts of heat, enough to warp the barrels with sustained firing, so the outer layer, connected to the barrel at numerous points, was intended to absorb heat away from the barrels and give it greater surface area to dissipate into the slipstream – this is much the same way a car’s radiator or the heatsink of a computer works. The holes simply increase airflow and thus energy transfer. Visible throughout the video is a bar extending from the belly of the aircraft just aft of the turret position – this is a bumper to prevent striking the tail during a nose-high landing.

At 5:38, watch the main glass in the turret to see the chase plane come into view – it appears multiple times in the video, and I think it’s the Foundation’s North American B-25J Mitchell. At 8:25, the bomb bay doors open; the B-24 was the only bomber with rolling “garage doors.”

As the turret traverses, you can sometimes see one of the waist guns projecting from the sides of the fuselage, closer to the tail – the J model carried ten .50 caliber machine guns for protection, which gives a faint indication of the demands of the European theater. Throughout most of the war, the Allied Air Forces had to operate almost entirely out of England, crossing the channel and usually a significant amount of the continent before reaching any bombing target. The bombers had the fuel load to accomplish this – the escort fighters generally did not. For much of the war, the bombers would have fighter escorts as protection for only part of their journey, but long before reaching the target the fighters would have to turn back through lack of fuel, so the bombers usually went unprotected into the most dangerous areas, where Axis fighters were thickest and closest to their own supporting airbases. While they had gun emplacements all around the aircraft, they couldn’t maneuver much at all when stacked into bombing formation, and wouldn’t have been a match for the agility of the Messerschmitt and Focke Wolf fighters anyway. Tracking an attacking fighter from a gun emplacement, accurately enough to do sufficient damage, was exponentially harder than maneuvering a fighter to nail the larger, slower, and predictable bombers, and countless bombers were lost under the onslaught despite the number of protective guns. And this says nothing of the anti-aircraft rounds, “flak,” that were fired from ground emplacements scattered thickly around likely targets.

Now, a note in general about restored WWII aircraft. Almost all of the ones you might find anyplace today never saw combat, for the simple reason that those that did were never shipped back to the states – that was an unnecessary expense in the wake of everything else post-war. In fact, the large majority of aircraft were scrapped, especially if they’d seen battle damage – the risk of airframe or component failure is sometimes accepted in wartime, but unwarranted in peacetime. Most of the restored aircraft in this country are ones that never got shipped overseas, being models not fitted for combat or that sustained damage before posting, and very often pieced together from multiple aircraft, whatever can be found.

The Collings Foundation’s B-24J is an exception, having served as a bomber and transport in the European theater before being transferred to the Indian Air Force, where it was retired in 1968. In 1981, a British aircraft collector found the airframe and paid to have it shipped to England, and then sold it to the Collings Foundation which paid to have it shipped to the States – as you might imagine, this was an expensive prospect, as was restoring the aircraft to flying condition. Parts are hard to find and often have to be machined by hand, and even original mechanical drawings are scarce – technology had moved on and no one saw any need to keep obsolete documentation. Restorations are usually by non-profit organizations staffed by volunteers, and funded by the public appearances.

So if you get the chance to see one of these birds up close, don’t balk at the costs – one day these will only be dusty museum pieces.

Commemorative Air Force's B24A
No, these images aren’t from the 60s, but they are close to 20 years old from negatives that didn’t weather well. This is the Commemorative Air Force’s B24A, converted to air tour duty with the removal of the bomb bay doors and addition of windows – it has since been repainted. Later models had elaborate nose and tail gun turrets, a top turret, and the belly turret we’ve just seen.

I’m not going to embed another video in the post, but go here if you want to see the startup and takeoff of three of the Collings Foundations aircraft, including the B-24J in the above video (second one that appears.) It’ll give a good idea of the sounds they make, though you’ll have to wait until the takeoff at the end. You’ll also see the difference in the nose configuration between the A and J models, and just why the belly turret had to be retractable. Or you can take a tour with Jay Leno through the interior of the B-17, very similar in layout to the B-24.