Pilotage

A liberating experience

August 1, 1992

A pleasant fellow named Jim Booth called me at work one day last spring to introduce himself and to offer me a ride in a time machine. When he's not conning a FedEx DC-10, Booth makes ferry flights for the Collings Foundation flying museum, which operates tours of restored warbirds that literally barnstorm the country.

It's a great idea. The aircraft, beautifully restored and maintained, move from place to place, preceded by a network of foundation volunteers who stir up the local media. At the appointed time, crowds gather to watch the flight as it swoops over town, making low passes at the airport. The crews land and quickly set up a static display. Warbird fanatics and other curious citizens line up by the hundreds or thousands to pay $7 for the privilege of scurrying from tail to nose of a B-17, B- 24, or B-26. All of the pilots and crew are volunteers. The gate receipts go to maintain and operate the aircraft, thereby keeping them in the public consciousness far more effectively than would hanging them on a hook in a big room somewhere.

Booth is type rated in the B-17 and the B-24, which generally tour together (the B-26 goes out solo), and he invited me to join him and eight VIPs (folks who have contributed major cash or other special effort to the foundation) on a flight from the Napa County (California) Airport to Arcata.

"We can give you some time in the right seat of the B-24, and, oh, bring your camera. We'll have a lot of fun," said Booth.

"You bet," said I.

May 28 dawned propitiously bright and clear on the often-foggy northern California coast. I took off for Napa in the Skyhawk, picking up my friend Dan Flynn along the way. He would chase us to Arcata to provide a way back. Arriving at Napa County Airport, we could see the thronged aircraft from 2 miles out, looking larger than life against a general aviation backdrop — the Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress Nine-0-Nine and the Consolidated Vultee B-24J Liberator All American, the last fully restored B-24 flying in the world.

The B-24, although a production contemporary of the B-17, was a later design. Its first flight — in 1940 — came some five years after that of the Boeing in an era when aero technology was leaping ahead month by month.

Nonetheless, they were pretty evenly matched. Full up, each could do about 300 mph, but they cruised between 160 and 170 (miles per hour was used by both military and civil aviation in those days). Both grossed about 64,000 pounds on 4,800 horsepower and carried similar loads of about 10 men, 10 guns, and 4 tons of bombs. Although the Fortress's image is a bit larger in the public mind today, the Liberator, with more than 19,000 examples built, was the most-produced bomber in history. At the height of production, three B-24 plants cranked out one airplane per hour. A handful remain. Three are known to fly.

N24J, All American, was acquired by Bob Collings' foundation after serving in the Pacific in World War II and a long stint with the Indian Air Force, lasting into the late 1960s. Its "labor of love" restoration consumed $1.3 million in cash, plus 97,000 man-hours of volunteer labor. Work included replacing one third of the bomber's aluminum skin and a mile of new hydraulic lines. It was the 1990 Grand Champion at the Experimental Aircraft Association convention in Oshkosh.

Our short briefing from Booth pertained mostly to "seating." Belts were provided on available horizontal surfaces to which we were to strap ourselves for takeoff and landing. Otherwise, we would be free to scramble and climb around at will.

Strapped in just ahead of the waist gun ports, my vision was limited on takeoff to a few degrees on each side and to the rear. With the gear in the wells though, I unbuckled and proceeded over the bomb bay catwalk to the forward area, which houses the top and ball turret positions, the upper flight deck, and the lower crawl way leading out to the far forward bombardier and nose turret positions. I made it to the flight deck as we — with the B-17 — were flying a low pass over the Yountville Veterans Home, after which we rumbled by the Calistoga Gliderport for a wave. Next, I ducked down and crawled to the nose turret, arriving in the most forward seat as we flashed down the runway 20 feet over the Sonoma County Airport (downwind for extra effect). What a sight, first looking forward, then back, as the ground streaked under that 100- foot wing with its four mighty Pratt & Whitney R-1830s bouncing a bit in the low-level chop.

I remained in the turret as we climbed to about 1,000 feet agl and cruised over the Russian River and the low, lush forest ridges, heading for the rocky coastline. At water's edge, I crawled back to report to the flight deck, where a warm, vacant right seat beckoned me. I pulled my earplugs and donned a Bose noise-canceling headset and thus was able to carry on the only conversation possible during the two-hour flight.

As Booth pointed out cockpit highlights, I got the feel of the B- 24. As one might expect, it's quite heavy on the ailerons but with good response. Pitch feel is lighter but somewhat delayed as inputs travel down long cables to the elevator. The retarded response initially caused some BIO (Buz-induced oscillations) until my brain caught up with the horizon.

Rather than drop down low over the water as Booth had planned, I suggested holding our course and 1,300-foot altitude for another 10 miles so that I could fly by my airport home, which was providently dead ahead. He quickly agreed and called the other command pilot, Jon Rising, in the B-17. Rising slid in behind us, and we turned just a few degrees to pick up the runway heading. I had to S-turn once to pick up my target, as the long, bulbous nose blocked the view forward and down for about 5 miles ahead. As we arced in, there it was; I lowered the nose a bit and roared past my house and down the runway at full grin, with the Flying Fortress in trail.

Soon, I relinquished the yoke to a World War II veteran aircraft commander whose last B-24 ride had been in the left seat some 48 years ago.

The last hour of flight was spent climbing all over the fuselage and loitering in the tail turret and the open-waist gun ports in which gimbaled Browning .50-caliber machine guns dangled in the slipstream. While "blazing away" at cows and trees, I discovered that accurate fire from the waist ports took strength as well as skill, with the slipstream pulling strongly on the barrel.

Finally, after more passes at Garberville and Eureka airports, we circled over Arcata, landed, and taxied up before a large, applauding crowd. As the big Pratts cooled, creaking, tinkling, and dripping a bit, the ticket gate was quickly set up and folks queued for the show to begin anew.

What a day. How many of us can say, "I buzzed my house in a Liberator"?

The Collings Foundation may be reached for itinerary information or contributions at Post Office Box 248, Stowe, Massachusetts 01775; telephone 508/568-8924.