The legendary B-17 Flying Fortress was no doubt the most famous bomber of World War II used by the United States Army Air Corps, and for good reasons. The Boeing heavy bomber outperformed its competitors and exceeded the performance specifications of the Air Corps. Even so, it was not the most produced bomber in history, nor was it even the most manufactured American military aircraft. It was, in fact, its usual companion that could carry heavier bomb loads at higher altitudes and had a higher top and cruise speed:
The Consolidated B-24 Liberator.
Flying Coffin At a Closer Look
The B-24 Liberator and B-17 Flying Fortress’ developments were equally linked, so it was no surprise that the two served closely alongside one another in the skies of World War II.
B-24 was born when in 1938, the United States Army Air Corps asked Consolidated Aircraft of San Diego, California, to construct the B-17 Flying Fortress under licensed production. Consolidated reviewed the legendary aircraft and found that they could actually design and build a better and more capable bomber. They went and started to work on designing this better and more capable aircraft. The result was what the company internally called Model 32, with the latest aerodynamic practices applied, including the distinct shoulder-mounted, high aspect ratio “Davis Wing,” which was particularly fantastic at lower speeds. Davis Wing at that time was efficient in terms of producing speeds for bombers while keeping the thick profile that enabled the aircraft to have extra fuel storage for range.
The wing also gave B-24 a high cruise speed, long-range, and most importantly, the ability to carry a heavy load of bombs. It used two vertical stabilizers at the rear plus two bomb rays. Since one of Consolidated’s main objectives upon creating the B-24 was reducing its aerodynamic drag, they designed it so that its bay retracted into the fuselage when open instead of unfolding into the oncoming air against the wind. This design not only reduced drag while the bomb bays were open but also made access easier while on the ground.
The Liberator was the first-ever American bomber to use what was called a tricycle landing gear, which improved runway visibility while taxiing, as compared to taildraggers.
When the Liberator was created, the Allied forces did not yet have a fighter aircraft with the range to escort bombers into Europe and back, so bombers had to rely on and provide protection for themselves. The B-24’s armament was similar to the B-17, with ten .50 caliber machine guns mounted in the tail, waist, belly, and on top of its fuselage. A Sperry ball turret protected its belly, but unlike the B-17, the B-24’s ball turret was retractable because it had minimal ground clearance. This also gave the B-24 the capability to further reduce drag by raising its turret into the fuselage in-flight and lowering it when they expected to encounter the Luftwaffe.
Overshadowed by B-17
With all the superior qualities of the B-24 Liberator, one might be wondering why the B-17 Flying Fortress still overshadowed it. There were quite a few reasons why the B-17 received more love from the crew. One of the major reasons was that the Flying Fortress proved itself to be incredibly tough to shoot down in combat. It was not unusual to see B-17s returning to base with missing nose sections, elevators, half their vertical stabilizer or huge holes in the fuselage, which assured pilots that the aircraft could get them there and back home, regardless of their damages. One even survived being nearly cut in two by the wing of a Luftwaffe fighter that crashed into it in flight.
The aircraft was also easy to fly relative to the B-24 which was more of a handful taking off and landing as well as being easier to maintain.
Of the Flying Fortress, the crews would say, “If it’s Boeing, it’s going.”
The B-24, on the other hand, earned a not-so-good reputation and was actually given the moniker “Flying Coffin.” It was not as tough as the B-17, and more especially, it had a tendency to lose its wings after a few shots of well-placed cannon rounds. The Flying Fortress also carried more defensive firepower and flew higher than the Flying Coffin. Even so, the B-24 was still a popular choice among the US brass hats due to its ability to carry more bombs on longer-range missions, so it would only require fewer trips. It also did a fantastic job as a maritime patrol plane and a submarine hunter for the navy as a PB4Y. Soon, Consolidated would create a special navalized version of the Liberator for the Navy designated as the PB4y2. This version had a longer fuselage for a flight engineer-navigator position for long overwater flights and a vertical stabilizer replacing the boom tail on the B-24 for better control at the lower speeds and altitudes needed for sub hunting in the Atlantic.
The Liberator was soon outdated by Boeing’s B-29 Superfortress, and so when the war ended, it was quickly retired from combat roles. The Superfortress was truly super, with a pressurized crew compartment, high speed at altitude, and the ability to deliver nearly 20,000 lbs of bombs more than 2,500 miles away.
Setting the Record
Even when the B-24 earned a poor reputation during its time, it was no question that this bomber played a crucial role in the bombings of the Allied forces in Europe. And while quality beats quantity for sure, a total of 18,000 Flying Coffins were built, 12,000 of which served in the USAAF. The B-17s, on the other hand, had around 13,000 of them built in total. During its peak, Ford’s Willow Run factory produced one B-24 every hour. Imagine that!
Until today, the B-24 Liberator holds the record of the most produced US military aircraft and the most produced bomber throughout history.