The B-24 Liberator carries the distinction of being America’s most-produced combat aircraft, despite its size and complexity. First flown December 29, 1939, it was built to the extent of 18,482 copies — probably a lot more than were really needed, even considering the myriad jobs assigned to different versions of the aircraft. Primarily intended to carpet-bomb German cities, it was adapted successfully to transport and maritime patrol roles. Though a more advanced aircraft than its companion the Boeing B-17, and having a significantly greater payload, the B-24 was more difficult to fly and was said to be more easily shot down (although it is not clear whether attrition rates bear this out). It certainly was less attractive, and was sometimes disparagingly called “the crate the B-17 came in.” A major part of the reason why so many were produced was Henry Ford’s massive effort to license-produce the plane at the huge plant at Willow Run, Michigan, where production rates eventually reached one B-24 per hour, day and night, for months at a time. Besides being used by the U.S.A.A.F. and the U.S. Navy (designated PB4Y), the Liberator was supplied to Britain, Canada, China and Australia during the war. Postwar, the major user was India, which kept them in service until 1968.
The B-24 vanished quickly from the U.S. inventory. To the extent that surplus 4-engined bombers were needed as VIP transports or for research, the service preferred the B-17. The U.S. Navy kept the highly developed, single-tailed PB4Y-2 Privateer variant in use for considerably longer, and surplus Navy aircraft ended up as forest fire fighting aircraft, accounting for the survival of several of them. Most of the true preserved B-24s were acquired from India at the time of their retirement. Given its military and industrial importance, there is a consensus that not enough B-24s were saved. It is said to be near the top of the U.S. National Air and Space Museum’s wish list.
Only three B-24s have been flying in the era of the warbird movement, two of them ex-Indian airframes. About 15 complete airframes survive, though some are built up from parts. Most are displayed in the United States, but there are two in Britain, one in Canada and one displayed in India. Rumors persist that a few more B-24 airframes may be stored in India in unknown condition.
LB-30A AM927 “Diamond Lil”
The earliest surviving B-24 and, as of 2014, the oldest flying 4-engined airplane in the world, the Commemorative Air Force‘s Liberator had a complicated early history that has led to some controversy about what to call it. Briefly, AM927 was the 18th out of 36 B-24A Liberators built, and the 26th Liberator built overall, counting the XB-24 prototype and seven YB-24 pre-production aircraft. Originally assigned U.S.A.A.C. serial 40-2366, it was diverted to a British order for Liberators (designated LB-30A) with serial AM927, its serial later being assigned to a later B-24. Arguably, therefore, it is a B-24A, at least conceptually. In any event, Diamond Lil was never delivered to the British like the other LB-30As because of a landing accident in Canada on its delivery flight. Throughout the war, the plane was used by manufacturer Consolidated under the registration NL24927. Postwar, it was used as a corporate transport by the Continental Can Company (as N1503), then with the Mexican oil company PEMEX (as XC-CAY), then, in 1967, with the Confederate (later Commemorative) Air Force as N12905 and ultimately reverting to its original civil registration N24927. From the 1970s through 2005, AM927 was maintained basically in corporate transport configuration, though it eventually received a bomber-type nose, and painted in U.S.A.A.F. desert camouflage to represent a B-24D serving in North Africa. The name “Diamond Lil” comes from the title of a 1928 Broadway play which was the first successful role for Mae West, an actress much admired by World War II servicemen for her physical attributes, but the name and nose art are not authentic to any specific B-24.
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In the late 2000s the CAF remodeled AM927 to resemble one of the 18 B-24As retained by the U.S. Army. Although the plane still has no bomb bay doors, the flight deck windows have been returned to bomber configuration and armament installed. Still something of a mongrel, the aircraft is now a much better representation of an early Liberator bomber. Apart from the nose art, Diamond Lil’s current paint scheme is generally representative of the early B-24As, painted in British-specified night bomber camouflage with U.S. insignia, except that its black undersides should extend up the sides of the fuselage and the entire tail fins; the CAF’s restorers felt that an accurate paint scheme would be too dreary for airshow work. The large U.S. flag painted on the nose is an authentic reproduction of the flags applied to U.S. aircraft operating in war zones prior to December 1941, when the U.S. was neutral, signaling that neither side should attack the aircraft. AM927 is a hard-working warbird that tours the U.S. every year, appearing at many airshows and providing flight experiences.
B-24D 42-72483 “Strawberry Bitch”
This B-24 saw combat with the 512th Bomb Squadron, 376th Bomb Group, in North Africa and Italy from August 1943 to April 1944, completing 13 combat missions. The expression “strawberry bitch” is a term used in dog breeding, although in this case it clearly applies to the red-haired woman. Most of the time the pinup painted on this aircraft was depicted nude, but modest articles of clothing, as shown on today’s museum exhibit, customarily were added temporarily when high-ranking officers visited a base. After the war the B-24 was selected for preservation and has been in the National Museum of the USAF since 1959.
Dick took the first several photos in this gallery when he was involved in preparing Strawberry Bitch for its May 12, 1959 ferry flight from storage at Davis-Monthan AFB in Tucson, Arizona, to the museum in Dayton. The aircraft has been refurbished and repainted a few times during its period of display at the NMUSAF; for some reason, the details of the paint job gets less accurate each time. This aircraft is believed by some to be haunted by ghosts of former crewmen.
Liberator GR.V RCAF 559
Originally laid down as a B-24D, U.S. serial 42-40461, this aircraft was delivered to the RAF (as serial BZ734) and then to the RCAF (as 559) without leaving North America. It served through the war in Canada and was recovered, in incomplete and damaged condition, from a farm in Alberta in 1972 by warbird collector David Tallichet. The surviving portion, the nose section, is displayed at the Virginia Air and Space Center. The paint job appears to reflect a U.S.A.A.F. B-24D painted for North African service circa 1943-44.
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B-24M 44-41916 “Shady Lady”
Castle Air Museum displays this B-24, recovered from Bolivia in 1982. The aircraft had served with the U.S. Navy as a PB4Y-1, serial 90165, then as a civil aircraft in the U.S. registered N4K and N5141N. In Bolivia it was used as a transport, registered CB-76 and CP-576. The museum has restored it as “Shady Lady” of the 329th Squadron, 93rd Bomb Group, which flew bombing missions over Germany from various bases in England, with stints in North Africa and Tunisia. This aircraft’s markings date to early 1944. Group records show that one B-24M named Shady Lady did serve with the 93rd Bomb Group, 44-41818, but it was in natural metal finish and its squadron is unknown. The 93rd Bomb Group became the postwar 93rd Bomb Wing based at Castle AFB, the site of the museum, which accounts for the paint scheme choice.
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B-24J 44-44052 “All American” / “The Dragon and His Tail” / “Witchcraft”
This B-24J was delivered to the British Royal Air Force as KH191 and later passed to the Indian air force as T-18. Recovered from India in the 1980s by a British collector, it was acquired by the Collings Foundation which, in the 1980s, performed one of the most ambitious World War II aircraft restorations up to that time. The result is the only thoroughly restored airworthy Liberator, and N224J has been touring the United States offering flight experiences for most of its career since it first re-flew in 1989.
The Collings B-24J has worn three different paint schemes since it was restored. The first paint scheme was silver with a hodgepodge of bomb group markings with the name “All American.” For a brief time in the 2000s’ the plane was painted authentically in the garish nose art of “The Dragon and His Tail,” serial 44-40973 of the 64th Squadron, 43rd Bomb Group serving at Le Shima (now Ieijima, a tiny island just northwest of Okinawa that to this day that is a Japanese tourist destination) in the Pacific. This paint scheme, however, featured nudity and proved too racy for some delicate onlookers, so the aircraft was repainted as “Witchcraft,” an olive green B-24H (42-52534) of the 790th Squadron, 467th Bomb Group, 8th Air Force. The original Witchcraft flew 130 sorties from April 1944 to April 1945 without the loss or injury of any crewman. The first and third of these paint schemes are depicted in this gallery.
B-24J 44-44175 “Shoot You’re Covered” / “Bungay Buckaroo”
Delivered to the RAF as Liberator B.VII KH304, then Indian air force HE877, this B-24 was acquired by the Pima Air Museum in 1969, shortly after B-24s were retired from Indian service, and ferried from Poona, India to Tucson, Arizona. For some years after restoration it was displayed outdoors with Indian markings painted on one side and the markings of “Shoot You’re Covered,” a B-24H 44-40282 of the U.S.A.A.F. 9th Squadroh, 7th Bomb Group, 10th Air Force, on the other. More recently, it has been taken inside and painted to represent B-24H 42-95203 “Bungay Buckaroo” of the 704th Squadron, 446th Bomb Group. The original Bungay Buckaroo is reported to have served as the lead airplane for the 8th Air Force’s bombing missions of June 6, 1944, the day of the Normandy invasion. Bungay is a town in Suffolk, England, where the 446th Group’s base of RAF Flixton was located; “buckaroo” is a synonym for an American cowboy.
B-24J 44-44272 “Delectable Doris” / “Joe”
Fantasy of Flight‘s B-24 is another machine recovered from India. Now N94459, formerly RAF KH401 and IAF HE771, this aircraft came to the U.S. in the 1970s and was sporadically airworthy until about 2001, when it was retired to its current owner. Never the subject of a full restoration, this B-24 would need considerable work to return to the air again, but it is basically sound and intact and may someday do so. For several years it was displayed at the March Field Museum painted as “Delectable Doris,” a B-24J 42-50551 of the 566th Squadron, 389th Bomb Group, 8th Air Force, operating from Norwich. The original Delectable Doris was shot down by flak on a mission to Berlin on February 3, 1945, with seven crew members killed and the other two taken prisoner. For some reason, Fantasy of Flight has changed the nose art to “Joe” while retaining the previous unit markings.
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Liberator B.VII KN280
Originally B-24L 44-50454, then RAF KN280, then Indian AF HE773, this Liberator was acquired by the Canadian government immediately upon its retirement from Indian service, put into airworthy condition, and ferried by a joint Canadian and Indian crew to the Canada Air and Space Museum where it has been displayed ever since. Canada used many Liberators for antisubmarine patrol during World War II, and KN280 is restored as RCAF serial 11130, one such aircraft.
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B-24M 44-51228 “Dugan”
The last Liberator in the U.S. military inventory survived until the 1950s, being used for experimentation with ice accumulations on flying surfaces. It was retired and displayed for many years at the Airman Heritage Museum and its predecessors in Texas, for at least part of the time as “The Blasted Event” of the 329th Squadron, 93rd Bomb Group. In 1999, to the distress of some American admirers of the type, it was acquired by Britain’s Imperial War Museum and refurbished for display at IWM’s American Air Museum at Duxford. It is now painted as “Dugan,” of the 578th Squadron, 392nd Bomb Group, based at Wendling in Norfolk. Dugan is a common Irish surname.
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PB4Y was the Navy designation for all B-24-based aircraft, and the early PB4Y-1 variants were essentially identical to Army B-24s except for some changes in armament and equipment. The PB4Y-2, however, was a variant used almost entirely by the Navy (only eight of the Army equivalent B-24N were produced, and none entered service) late in World War II and for some years afterward. It was a substantial redesign of the B-24, with a large single tail fin, redesigned engine nacelles, stretched fuselage and many other improvements. PB4Y-2s were used as patrol bombers during and after the war, and several were then assigned to weather research, which sometimes entailed flying over and into hurricanes and tropical storms from their bases in Florida. After retirement from this duty some PB4Y-2s were used to carry and drop fire retardant on forest fires in the western United States, from which they were retired only in the 1980s. As a result, several PB4Y-2s survive, with one currently flying on the airshow circuit, and a few more poised to return to the air.
This Privateer served in patrol bombing, weather research and search-and-rescue capacities until 1954, when it became an insect sprayer and later a fire fighter, registered N6319D and N6813D. Like most of the fire bomber conversions, it was refitted with Wright R-2600 engines from a B-25 Mitchell. In 1975 it suffered an accident in British Columbia and was later acquired, in heavily damaged condition, by the Yankee Air Museum at Willow Run, Michigan. Yankee had a long-standing goal of acquiring a B-24, preferably one built at the Ford plant at its home base, for display; but by the 1980s it realized that a PB4Y was likely the closest it could come. Yankee has restored the aircraft to static display condition. These pictures show it in the mid-1980s, before restoration; today it is dark blue and more closely resembles an operational Navy PB4Y-2.
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PB4Y-2 66261 or 66304
Although sold to a fire bombing company and registered N7682C, PB4Y 66261 was retained by its operator as a spares aircraft and never converted to a fire tanker, although it did receive B-25 engines. Thus the U.S. Navy had the good fortune to acquire a relatively stock Privateer when it set out to remedy its failure to preserve one of these aircraft from active service for its National Naval Aviation Museum. On display since 1983, this aircraft has adopted the identity of serial 66304, which supplied some pieces for its restoration.
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The Yanks Air Museum PB4Y-2 was acquired in 2006 in the final auction of the assets of aerial firefighting company Hawkins & Powers, who used it as N2872G “Tanker 124.” It flew into Chino under its own power and is now parked; most likely it will be gradually restored to military configuration for static display.
One of the last serving firefighting PB4Y-2s, N2871G “Tanker 121” was purchased in 2008 by the Lauridsen Aviation Museum, which has returned it to U.S. military markings and exhibits it at airshows while gradually having it restored back to patrol bomber configuration by a shop at its Arizona base. It is shown here in its final tanker colors and also in its current (2014) semi-military paint scheme.
This nose section is unidentified but appears to be a combination of PB4Y-2 and B-24J parts built up for the National World War II Museum to resemble an F-7, the reconnaissance version of the B-24D. It is painted as “Over Exposed, an F-7 flown by William Sewell.