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.

Strong contingent of U.S. troops reinforces the British in the Middle East. Australian and American mechanics are seen working on an American B-24 bomber (the Malicious) after its return from a bombing mission. (Unknown photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

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.