A Brief History
On December 29, 1939, the Consolidated B-24 Liberator heavy bomber made its first flight. Although largely eclipsed by its fellow US heavy bomber, the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, in myth, literature, and cultural references, the fact is that the B-24 was more numerous (most produced heavy bomber in history, most produced US military airplane in history) and could fly farther and faster than the more famous B-17. The B-24 also could carry more bombs than a B-17, and each plane had a normal crew of 10 men.
Powered by 4 Pratt and Whitney turbo-supercharged radial engines, the power of the B-24 was identical to that of the B-17 (4800 total horsepower), but the thinner and longer “Davis” wing of the B-24 gave it the advantage in aerodynamics allowing for a greater top speed (290 mph vs. 287 mph), a greater cruising speed (more important than top speed, 215 mph vs. 182 mph), and longer range (listed ranges vary due to various conditions, models and bomb loads, but you can figure the B-24 could fly around 300 to 800 miles more than a B-17). The B-17 did have a higher service ceiling.
The B-24 design was ordered as an expected upgrade from the B-17, which preceded the B-24 in service by a few years. Given a tricycle style landing gear instead of the “tail dragging” design of the B-17 and with the high mounted thinner wing, the B-24 did look more modern than the B-17, but in reality the aircraft were quite close to each other in capabilities. Both bombers were designed with heavy defensive armament in order to fly unescorted missions, the B-24 with 4 twin mount .50 caliber turrets and 2 waist mounted single .50 caliber machine guns (10 total), compared to the B-17 which had either 11 or 13 .50 caliber machine guns, depending on model. Neither bomber proved capable of self-defense against enemy fighters and needed friendly fighter escort when flying over contested targets in daylight.
The B-24 was considered by many fliers as not as rugged as the B-17, and its thin wing made low speed maneuvering tricky. Still, the platform proved more adaptable and the B-24 was made in large numbers as maritime patrol craft, fighting enemy U-boats and surface ships, using its greater range to its advantage. Reconnaissance and transport versions were also produced, as well as other specialty versions. In all, over 19,000 of these big bombers were made, compared to less than 13,000 B17s. Both bombers normally carried a bombload of 4000-8000 lbs, though the larger bomb bay of the B-24 allowed for a larger maximum load of bulky ordnance. Despite this, the B-17s in Europe actually dropped more tons of bombs than the B-24s, due to flying more missions. Fated to spend eternity in history as the bomber that was not the B-17, both bombers were finally retired from active service (third world air forces) in 1968. Only 2 known Liberators are airworthy today.
World War II bomber crews often debate which was the better plane, or which bomber they would rather fly into combat, but certainly the B-24 does not get the recognition it deserves, living in the shadow of the B-17. Note: Ford Motor Company built 8000 B-24s during World War II at its giant Willow Run manufacturing plant. Question for students (and subscribers): Which plane would you rather fly? Why? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Campbell, Donna and John M. Campbell. Consolidated B-24 Liberator (American Bomber Aircraft, Vol. 1). Schiffer Publishing, Ltd., 1993.
Crean, Michelle, Paul Perkins, et al. The Soldier: Consolidated B-24 Liberator (Living History Series, Vol 2). Howell Pr, 1994.
Simons, Graham M. Consolidated B-24 Liberator (Images of War). Casemate Publishers, 2012.