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They made 18,000 of them, give or take. They flew in every theater of WW II. But only one B-24J Liberator is still flyable today.


B-24J “Witchcraft” over the San Francisco Bay Area

Engines or no engines, I like photographing things that fly. So when I saw a newspaper article about visiting WW II aircraft, I decided to check them out at Albuquerque Sunport’s Cutter Aviation. I arrived just before local noon. But this time of year, the sun is still low enough with diffusing cloud cover to ease harsh shadows.

Since this was the last day the Collings Foundation’s vintage aircraft would be in Albuquerque, there was no charge to walk around for an outside look.

Bring Wides… and Telephotos
As usual, I brought the reduced kitchen sink for shooting – EOS 5D mk II and 7D dSLRs, 16-35mm f/2.8L, 24-70mm f/2.8L, 70-200mm f/2.8L IS. I also brought a 400mm f/4 DO IS, but figured I wouldn’t use it and left it in the car. I would later discover this was a mistake.

I didn’t bother with manual focus lenses and my mirrorless camera. I’d had a very low hit rate with manual focus at an earlier airshow at nearby Kirtland AFB, so I knew better.

B-24J bomb bay - gas and hydraulic lines

Looking towards bomb bay – gas and hydraulic lines

What’s Inside?
I’d already been inside all three bombers on display – the B24J, B-17G Flying Fortress, and B-25 Mitchell – when they appeared at Moffett Federal Airfield in Mountain View, California in 2008. The one thing they all had in common? No insulation and just a single riveted aluminum layer between you and the air you flew through. In the B24, gaps between the nose turret and the fuselage let cold air blow through the rest of the aircraft. Even with electrically-heated flight suits, it was cold at 25,000 feet.

With gas tanks distributed throughout the airplane, gasoline lines paralleled hydraulic control lines everywhere. Aircrew had to work around numerous gas and hydraulic fluid leaks that also made the airplane flammably dangerous in a firefight.

B-24 flies over Ploesti, 1943

B-24 flies over Ploesti, 1943 – from 44th Bomb Group Photograph Collection –, Public Domain

Bad Luck at Ploesti
In its most famous (or infamous) mission over Romania’s Ploesti oilfields in 1943, the USAAF lost 53 B-24s, 440 aircrew killed and 220 captured or missing. The mission was plagued by bad luck from the start. After 178 planes took off from Libya, one plane fell out of formation and crashed into the Adriatic Sea. Another went to look for survivors and found none, but was so heavy with fuel it couldn’t climb back up to resume formation and had to return to base. 10 more aircraft had to land at friendly airfields short of the target due to other problems.

B-24J tail guns

B-24J tail guns

The 11,000 foot climb over Greece’s Pindus mountains spread and separated the remaining formations, preventing the tightly-synchronized attack as planned. Senior leadership decided to go ahead anyway, in separated groups. The Germans had noticed the large number of planes – they knew what was coming, so the element of surprise was lost.

One group was supposed to make an approach from a different direction and diverted 63 miles from Ploesti, but got lost and headed for Bucharest. They had to fly through Bucharest’s heavy defenses before facing an anti-aircraft (AA) “curtain of iron” at Ploesti. As the bomber groups reached the refinery, they approached nose to tail just a few feet above the highest smokestack. AA bursts were almost heavy enough to walk on. Some crews saw friends shot down just in front of them, and at least one plane was so low it was damaged by grazing buildings on the ground. Though the mission destroyed 42% of Ploesti’s refining capacity, the Germans had it all back online in just a few days.

TF-51D two-seater

TF-51D two-seater

TF-51D Mustang
The Collings Foundation had also flown in their TF-51D Mustang two-seater. Its pilot had a much cozier (and warmer) cockpit than the bomber crews. P-51s defended bombers in both Pacific and European theaters. They also shot down a few much faster ME-262 jet fighters near the end of the war.

B-24J prop spin / engine check

B-24J prop spin / engine check

Shoot Pieces of a Big Plane
It’s hard to photograph the entire front view of a plane with a 110 foot wingspan, wider than it is long, without including lots of empty sky or concrete taxiway, or making a panoramic crop. I focused on the ground crew’s prep of the airplane. Before takeoff, they slowly turned each prop through a couple revolutions by hand, to clear any oil or fuel out of cylinders and check free turning of the engine.

B-24J Wing Inspection

Wing Inspection

First the #3 engine, outboard on the starboard side, starts with a huge smoke cloud from the exhaust. Since this engine powers the primary hydraulic pump, it must be started first. Then the rest of the engines started sequentially. The pilot waited for a little warmup, then the ground crewman’s orange wands signaled him as he turned towards the main taxiway and takeoff. Fortunately for today’s pilot and crew, the next stop was Phoenix, not a bombing mission over occupied Europe.

B-17G startup

B-17G startup

The big plane shrank as it lumbered down the runway and climbed over the Sandia Mountains, becoming a small stick-figure in my viewfinder. My 200mm zoom just wasn’t up to the job. I shoulda brought the 400mm…

B-24J waist gun - very exposed

B-24J waist gun position – very exposed to enemy fighters

More Information
Consolidated B-24 Liberator, accessed from

The B-24 Liberator, accessed from

How to “Keep ’em Flying” from the Flight Manual for the B-24 Liberator, accessed

Bombing Raid on Ploesti, 1943, accessed from

Operation Tidal Wave, accessed from

North American P-51 Mustang, accessed from

Collings Foundation World War II Collection, accessed from

Moffett Federal Airfield, accessed from