Muche's Warbirds
Articles, Interviews & Stories






(some of the photos may be seen in a larger size at B-24 "The Dragon and His Tail")

It is first felt as a vibration in the air. Then comes the low, full-throated rumble of eight radial engines as a B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator begin their approaches. This is the beginning of a unique experience for many spectators, young and old alike. Through the ground tours they will be able to see first hand what it was like to try and move around the cramped interior of a B-17 or tread the narrow catwalk through the bomb bay over open doors in the B-24. Imagination will fill in the details of what it would be like while in the air over enemy territory. Some of the visitors will be renewing acquaintance with the type of aircraft they crewed on during the war; some will be willing to share an anecdote or a story; others will just be remembering, often with a smile, sometimes with tears.

These scenes of discovery and reminiscence are repeated in over 150 cities each year as the Collings Foundation tours the country with its flying museums. Each of the two aircraft has a history and is unique in its own right.

This B-24 Liberator, built in 1944, has a combat record with the RAF in the Pacific. Abandoned in India at the end of the war, she served as a patrol bomber for India until 1968. Originally restored and flown as "All American", the aircraft underwent a name and nose art change in January 1999. Renamed "The Dragon and His Tail" to honor the veterans who served in the Pacific, this artwork represents the most extensive, and one of the most widely recognized, nose arts of World War II. The original "Dragon" flew 85 missions with the 43rd Bomb Group 64th Bomb Squadron and was the last B-24 to be scrapped.

The current B-17G "Nine-O-Nine" was likewise named to honor an historic aircraft. Although this particular airplane does not have a combat history, she did serve with the Air/Sea 1st Rescue Squadron and in the Military Air Transport Service. Before being used as a fire bomber the aircraft participated in the nuclear testing program of the early 1950s, being subjected to the effects of three nuclear explosions. She was finally sold and restored back to her wartime configuration, being named in honor of that plane of the 91st Bomb Group 323rd Bomb Squadron that flew 140 missions without an abort or loss of a crewman.

Like the bombers themselves, many of the people who come to see them also have a history and are unique in their own right. From all walks of life they heeded their country's call and did what was asked of them. After the war was over, most took up their lives where they had left off. It is their stories that are told and shared, directly or through others. They are funny, somber, happy or sad, but always they stir the emotions. Many tell heroic stories but do not feel that they themselves are heroes. They were "just doing a job."

The Collings Foundation itself is an unusual entity in that, unlike most other museums that are fixed in one location, this group takes the museum and its history to the people. It is entirely self supporting, relying on donations, gifts, and the sale of souvenir items in its PX to finance the operation of these aircraft. The all-volunteer air crews fly and care for these pieces of history throughout their 10-month road trip, performing routine maintenance, and sometimes making repairs, while on the ramp during plane tours and between flights.

We were fortunate enough to be able to travel with the planes for a few weeks and got a personal glimpse of what it is like behind the scenes. There is very little glamour involved; we don't just get in the planes and fly from place to place. For every hour we spend in the air, several more are spent on the ground cleaning, fixing, doing paperwork, preparing for the next flight. For everyone, though, it is a labor of love. Why else would we spend 16 to 18 hours a day, 7 days a week, being hot, cold, dirty, greasy, damp or parched, answering the same questions over and over, eating fast food, and living on only about 6 hours of sleep per night? The rewards, however, are well worth the discomforts and inconveniences. Every time we hear someone say "That was really neat!", every time we see a group of smiling faces after a flight in one of the bombers, every time someone shares with us a "war story" about themselves or a friend or a relative - this is what makes it worth the effort.

An average day starts around 7:00 am with everyone meeting in the hotel lobby to drive out to the airport. Flights are typically scheduled to begin around 7:30, weather permitting, with the planes being opened for tours at the conclusion of the morning flying. At this time, too, any routine aircraft maintenance begins. No one on the crew is exempt from participating in the daily work which encompasses everything from collecting admission fees, running the PX, wiping oil, and turning wrenches. At approximately 5:30 pm the planes are readied for their evening flights which end at dusk. During the summer months this is sometimes as late as 8:30. After the planes are put to bed the crew adjourns to the hotel, grabs a quick dinner, finishes any required paperwork, and hits the sack, starting all over again the next day.

Regular maintenance is done at tour stops. Here crew members Mac McCauley and Bill Houge work on one of the bombers four Pratt & Whitney R-1830-65 engines. (Photo by Lani Muche)

The aircraft change locations nearly every other day, making organization a necessity. Everything has its stowage place in the plane and each plane carries certain materials. Loading, unloading, and setup can be accomplished in just a matter of minutes and signage is simple and kept to a minimum. Personnel also have their assigned tasks and, after only a day or two, any newcomers easily slip into the routine. Local volunteers at each stop are also lifesavers, many times taking over simple duties and giving the regular crew members a much-needed breather.

Not all of each day involves physical labor. Quite a bit of time is spent talking with, and just listening to, the people who come out to see the planes. In the short amount of time we spent with the tour we heard stories that made us laugh and others that tore our hearts out. We shared hugs and tears and laughter with people who thanked us "for working so hard to help bring the planes on tour" so they could see them again. When we tried to thank them for giving us a view and understanding of what they went through, almost all of them had the same comment: "It was no big deal." And then they would add: "But I wouldn't want to have to do it again!"

By far the most popular of the two airplanes among the people we met was the B-24 although the B-17 was recognized by almost all of the kids that saw them. Also, most of the young people seemed to know more about the Flying Fortress than the Liberator, possibly due to the fact that the B-17 got more publicity both during and after the war.

The B-24's cockpit has been restored to its wartime appearance. Modern equipment is hidden behind removable panels. (Photo by Lani Muche)

B-24 Design History

Both the B-17 and B-24 were the workhorses of the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II, being designed for long-range high-altitude bombing missions. Although their ranges and altitudes were similar (3,750 miles and 25,000 ft for the B-17 and 3,000 miles and 30,000 ft for the B-24) it was the Liberator that really pulled its weight, carrying nearly twice the payload of the B-17. The B-24s flew more missions and dropped more bombs than any other aircraft, served the USAAF in every theater of the war, and flew for over 15 allied countries. Of the over 18,000 Liberators built only approximately nine airframes are in existence today and of these there is only one fully restored and flying bomber. (Note: the Fantasy of Flight Museum's B-24 is not currently flying and requires extensive work to return it to flying status. The Confederate Air Force's "Diamond Lil" is an LB-30. The aircraft has the basic B-24 airframe but was built to British specifications and has not been restored to a bomber configuration.) The B-17, while still rare, survived in greater numbers because of its usefulness as a fire bomber. Even so of the over 12,000 built there are only about a score still flying and a little more than that number in museums and storage around the world.

Design work on the B-24 (Consolidated Model 32) was begun by Consolidated aircraft of San Diego, CA in 1939 at the request of the Army Air Corps which was looking for an aircraft which would outperform the B-17. In less than a year the XB-24 (#39-680) made its first flight. Seven YB-24s were ordered for service trials in 1940 along with an order for 36 B-24A initial production models.

The A models were delivered in 1941 but the but further work on the prototype led to the B-24B which replaced the original P&W R-1830-33 engines with the turbo supercharged -41. At this time, also, the oil coolers were relocated to the sides of each engine. The C model saw the addition of a Martin dorsal and a Consolidated tail turret, each with two 0.50 in guns.

The first model to be produced in large numbers was the B-24D which used the more powerful R-1830-43 engine. Over 2,400 of this model were produced and it was the first to be deployed worldwide. Three production lines were opened to meet deployment needs. Several design changes were carried out during this model's production run. These were primarily changes in armament and fuel capacity. Armament was increased from four 0.50 in guns to ten with the addition of a ventral tunnel gun, two more nose guns and two waist guns. A few aircraft were fitted with the retractable Briggs-Sperry ball turret in place of the tunnel gun. Bomb load was increased to 12,800 lbs from the initial 8,000 lbs.

Minor changes led to the E model which was built under contract by the Ford Motor Company. Initially the only difference between the D and the E was the propellers but in the final stages of the production run the R-1830-43 engine was replaced by the -65.

The B-24G, which began production in 1943 added the upper nose turret and a modified visual bomb-aiming position. The nose turret, either a Consolidated or an Emerson unit mounting two 0.50 in guns, was added to help deter head-on attacks by enemy fighters. Both the B-24 and the B-17 had proved extremely vulnerable to this tactic. The H was little changed from the G, adding only minor improvements.

The J model was the most widely produced of all the B-24 variant, with a total of 6,678 being built. The main differences from the G and H were the mounting of a Motor Products nose turret, improved bomb-sight and autopilot. The L and M models differed from the J in the mounting of either a Convair or Motor Products tail turret.

The Stories:

While all of the stories that we heard along the way are memorable, there are always a certain few that stand out in our mind. They ran the gamut from hilarious to heart wrenching and we tried to record as many as possible. Several interesting stories were told in San Jose, CA, when four ball turret gunners got together for the first time and started comparing notes. The following two humorous anecdotes came from that meeting.

#1: The view from the ball turret is probably the most spectacular of all. You can see almost the whole countryside below you. On one mission it was so clear you could see the flashes of the antiaircraft guns as they fired at us. I got on the intercom and warned everyone "Look out! Get ready, here it comes!" You'd think they would be grateful. Instead I got back "Shut up!" "I don't want to hear it!" Why'd you have to go and ruin my day?"

#2: The ball turret position usually went to the shortest guy on the crew. Now I'm almost six feet tall and I was a ball turret gunner; I got that position by default. The night they chose positions I had a hot date and by the time I got back all that was left was that itty bitty hole. But the date was worth it.

Other stories, though not humorous, stay with us as well. One, again from a ball turret gunner, told of his experience on one of many missions. He said that on this occasion his aircraft came under heavy fighter attack. After a successful defense he came to himself "sitting knee deep in brass, soaked with sweat, and unable to remember a goddam thing about the fight."
The ball turret as seen from the waist gun position. The turret is in its deployed position but can be retracted. (Photo by Lani Muche)

One of the most poignant and heart wrenching meetings came during the second week of our portion of the tour. We were approached by a woman in her mid-50s who quietly asked to see the B-24. On pointing the plane out to her she quietly began to cry. After a few minutes she wanted to know if she could ask a few questions. We then took her out to the aircraft and provided as much information as we could. Finally, she thanked us and told us that her father had flown a Liberator and that he had been killed. They had never even seen each other. At this point she once again began to cry and we're not ashamed to admit that we cried with her.

These planes and all of the warbirds flying are more than just relics of bygone technology. They are pieces of history which have touched and still touch peoples' lives. The long hours spent in maintaining them are a small price to pay for being a part of their still continuing story.

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