During WWII, the British RAF and the U.S. Eighth Air Force used the Consolidated B-24
June 27, 2001
|About the Author ...
John Deakin is a 35,000-hour pilot who worked his way up the aviation food chain
via charter, corporate, and cargo flying; spent five years in Southeast Asia
with Air America; 33 years with Japan Airlines, mostly as a 747 captain; and
now flies the Gulfstream IV for a West Coast operator.
He also flies his own
V35 Bonanza (N1BE) and is very active in the warbird and vintage aircraft
scene, flying the C-46, M-404, DC-3, F8F Bearcat, Constellation, B-29, and
others. He is also a National Designated Pilot Examiner (NDPER), able to give
type ratings and check rides on 43 different aircraft types.
ever having touched one, my usual comment about the B-24 has always been
something on the order of "Ugly as sin, flies like *&^%," based
on the words of Ernest K. Gann in "Fate Is the Hunter." He hated
Well, pass the salt ... I've got to eat a little crow here. Maybe even a
lot of crow. I've now had the amazing opportunity to check out as copilot in
the thing, and much to my surprise, I find I LIKE the old beast!
To be fair to EKG, he had to fly a cargo version (the C-87) under appalling
conditions, overloaded, in heat, dust, thunderstorms and icing, not to mention
long flights over the oceans, deserts and jungles of the world. Under those
conditions, his distrust of them and their systems was well-founded!
All this came about through a peculiar set of circumstances, like many of
the things that seem to happen to me, these days. Why me? Just lucky, I guess!
| Base model:
||U.S. Air Force
| Basic role:
| Designation Period:
| No. of Engines:
||Pratt & Whitney R-1830-33
| Horsepower (each):
| Max Speed:
"Diamond 'Lil," the oldest and only remaining flyable LB-30
(another B-24 variant), belongs to the
Confederate Air Force and is based in Midland, Texas. She went down for
heavy maintenance in Tulsa very early this year, and thanks to the incredible
efforts of the American Airlines maintenance workers there (over 5,000
volunteer hours!!!), came out in near-flawless condition.
This machine ("AM-927," previously "40-2366") was made
by Consolidated-Vultee in San Diego, and accepted in May of 1941. Its history
may be a bit clouded, and there are conflicting reports. The CAF says it
started the long ferry flight to Europe, but suffered a landing accident on
the way. It was repaired and then ferried back to San Diego for refitting as a
passenger airplane, and spent the war years as a company plane for
Consolidated. After the war it was sold as surplus to Continental Can Company,
and used as a corporate aircraft. Ahh, those were the days when the fuel costs
of 200 GPH at 200 knots didn't matter!
When Continental Can got rid of it, the Mexican oil company PEMEX flew it
for some years, and then the CAF acquired it in 1967 or 1968. An alternative
version from a usually reliable source (historian John Graff) follows:
(1) She's incorrectly (U.S.) registered. She's an LB-30B = B-24A (not
(2) She was built and modified for use as an anti-submarine search and
attack aircraft for employment with "RAF Coastal Command."
(3) She served with No.120 Squadron (CC) and carried registration
AM927. "If" I have her spotted exactly she was "F" for
"Freddie," [commanded by Flight Lt. S.E. Esler, DFC] and was given
credit for heavily damaging U-449, a VII C commanded by Kapitanleutnant
Hermann Otto on June 15, 1943. The "449" could not submerge and was
later sunk in the Bay of Biscay (surface action with/against the Royal Navy)
on her way to France.
(4) Serials AM910 to AM929 served with RAF Coastal Command. AM929 was
the big killer with No. 120 Squadron and got three (3) U-Boats.
(5) The LB-30Bs were delivered to the RAF (accepted) in the summer of
1941 at Montreal and flown to Ireland (Belfast). These aircraft served with
distinction until replaced by later models (Liberator II and greater) in
(6) "927" obviously survived the war having (then) carried
USAAF insignia, but retaining Tail No. AM927. After the war she was flown by
Continental Can as N1503.
Now folks, you have to understand something, here. I didn't build 'em, I
haven't had a lifelong love affair with them, and I'm a lot weaker with
history than I should be. People come up to me at shows, and tell me the most
astonishing details about my beloved C-46, and I can only marvel at such
vicarious interest. My real interest in these old airplanes is, "Who do I
gotta kill to fly 'um," and, to some degree, "Show me what all the
shiny things (from lots of use) are, and let's go fly." So if you spot
technical errors, or historical ones, let me know, but be gentle, please. I'm
just a dumb pilot with some amazing opportunities.
Since "Lil" went down for a long count this past winter, all the
pilots became non-current, and several left for one reason or another. This is
a continuing problem with the CAF and other warbird operators. There were
several people up for type ratings and checkouts as PIC, and even more as SIC.
But there were no current PICs, instructors or check pilots reasonably
available for this very rare bird.
This creates a dilemma for the FAA, for once someone has an airworthy
airplane, the FAA is required to provide a means to get pilots qualified on
it. Some of the tricks used for this get pretty bizarre. This started getting
exceedingly difficult with the "exotics" about 15 years ago, and
something over ten years ago the problem was mostly solved by the formation of
the jointly administered FAA/EAA "NDPER" (National Designated Pilot
Examiner Registry) program, to handle check rides on "vintage"
aircraft for which there were no qualified examiners. For more details on
I recently joined that august group (more like November, actually). I joke
about it a lot, but there is an incredible variety of experience among the
group, and I am honored to have been invited to join them. It will be
interesting to see how long they can put up with me, for some have referred to
me as a "loose cannon." Gosh, I can't imagine why.
Information missing from that site is how the "groupings" are
determined. Once an NDPER is appointed, a type rating in any aircraft within
that group automatically makes him legal to give check rides in ALL airplanes
in that group. Since I have a DC-4 type rating, I can also do the B-24 (and
LB-30) types. Doesn't matter that I've never flown the specific aircraft, and
in fact, there are a couple on my list that I'd never even heard of! Note the
list is set up for twin nosedraggers, twin taildraggers, four-engine
nosedraggers, four-engine taildraggers, etc. There is a bit of logic there.
When the B-24/LB-30 group ran out of check pilots and shook the NDPER tree
as a last resort, I guess I fell out, with a request to proceed to Midland
immediately, to give three type rating rides in old N24927, to three men I'd
never flown with. I must have lit on my head, because the next thing I knew,
I'd agreed! More likely, the older and wiser NDPERs went fishing, or
something, and were "unavailable."
The first applicant was one Charlie Tilghman, a retired airline pilot,
currently also a B-29 pilot on the CAF's "FIFI," the only remaining
flying B-29 in the world. (More on this airplane in a future column.) Charlie
had received about five hours of instruction in the airplane, and allowed as
how he thought he might be able to pass a check ride. He had a legal SIC, but
this didn't provide a legal PIC for the check ride itself, and we all know
there must be a legal PIC. I was absolutely unwilling to ride the jump seat
for this, and insisted that either I'd be in the right seat, or not on board
at all. But that still left no legal crew.
Fortunately, Randy Sohn, the NDPER "Coordinator" (and founding
member) had been in this position before and pointed out that the FAA provides
for this. The provision is mostly for the "first flights" of new
airplanes, but it works for old ones, too. It's called a "Letter of
Authorization in lieu of a type rating," or "a training LOA."
(They're actually different, but it's a subtle difference, and even the FAA
almost always confuses them.)
That still didn't solve all the problems, because I was not legal to fly as
SIC, a required position. However, since Charlie had the LOA in hand, he was
legal to train me as SIC! Confused, yet?
Anyway, we hatched a plan for Charlie to first train me as SIC, then as a
new SIC I'd turn around and conduct a full ATP check ride on him. The
"management" at the CAF was somewhat taken aback by all this,
collectively gulped, and one asked, "Are you SURE the FAA is happy with
So it came to pass that I arrived in Midland on a HOT Sunday afternoon, and
called Charlie on the cellphone to let him know I was in.
we're about to fly the B-29 to check out two new engines, wanna go?"
(Charlie is qualified and current on the B-29, and will be the lead pilot on
both aircraft.) The thought crossed my mind that Charlie might be trying to
bribe me, and I wondered about conflict of interest, but that just got too
complicated for my simple brain, so I accepted with alacrity.
Now the B-29 is an artifact! I'd gotten an hour in it several years ago
from the venerable Randy Sohn, the longtime lead pilot on it, and the person
who had originally brought it home to the CAF from China Lake NAS in 1971. I
was delighted to see it flying again, also after a long time "down."
I watched as a trainee PIC flew from the left seat, while Charlie instructed
from the right. Charlie decided to put me in the right seat, where I got a
little stick time.
After a little of this, Charlie turned to me with a thoughtful look, and
said, "You know, I've been thinking, we need to get you checked out in
this one too, and we're just putting time on the engines today, why don't you
just shoot three touch-and-gos, then Tuesday you can attend the ground school,
and you'll be a legal SIC?"
I didn't argue! So I got three touch and gos, one with an engine pulled
back, making me legal for the flying part, ground school remaining. But first,
we had a couple B-24 check rides to do on Monday.
I will admit that it wasn't all "kick the tires and light the
fires," for I had "somehow" come into possession of a copy of
the manual for the B-24 (and B-29) some months ago, and had skimmed them out
of interest. With a couple days warning, I was able to review the B-24 rather
carefully, and knew enough about the airplane to pass an oral, although I was
much more interested in learning enough to give an oral without embarrassing
myself. Charlie and I spent a couple of hours that evening going over the
checklists and the cockpit and how we'd work it, and it all looked pretty
Click graphics below
for high-res versions.
Hydraulic system schematic.
Monday morning we spent some more time combining an instruction/discussion
session with an oral, then we fired up the four Pratt & Whitney R-1830-94s
(non-standard, 1,200 HP each), using the classic "controlled
quantity" start (primer only until the engine runs smoothly and the oil
pressure is up, then "Auto Rich" until the engine floods, then
release the primer).
Then came the fun part: taxiing. The nosewheel is not steerable in any way
it turns freely, with only a shimmy damper to keep it from wobbling at high
speed. Taxiing is accomplished with differential braking, differential power,
and invective. The brakes are hydraulic power brakes (Hayes expander tubes),
very "grabby" and very strong (at least until they fade with heat).
The pilot must develop a feel for them, squeezing the brake pedals slowly,
ever so slowly, like the trigger of a gun, listening and feeling the
"hydraulic hiss" as the valves start opening. At first, new pilots
will see the nose start to swing, then they'll try to apply a little brake to
stop it, the brake will grab hard, swing the nose the other way (also making
the nose bob up and down, making the pilot feel stupid), and it's off to the
races (or the grass). Luckily for me, they're a bit like the brakes on several
other airplanes I've flown, so that part wasn't too bad. I managed to taxi the
airplane without ripping the nose gear out by the roots, and without visiting
the grass infields. Reminds me of the old song, "bob-bob-bobbin'
The pedals themselves are very unusual. There are large
"footprint" pedals that slide in tracks. With the feet in the normal
position on the rudders, the toes ride on a hinge, and to use brakes, the
whole foot must be moved up so the heels are on the rudder pedals, and the
ball of the foot is on the brakes.
Runup is absolutely standard, 1,700 RPM, couple of prop checks (once to
full low RPM, which should be 1,200 on most of the old radials with Hamilton
Standard props) then each of the four feather buttons are pressed and popped
in turn, watching for load on the generators and an RPM drop, then one more
prop check. Inboards are run up to FBP (Field Barometric Pressure) for a power
check (should produce 2,300), a mag check is done there, then the inboards are
throttled back and the outboards checked the same way. Running up with
balanced power prevents stress on the nose gear, reputedly a weak point.
Charlie made the first takeoff and then turned it over to me for a little
airwork. I put my feet on the floor, and put in some aileron, and the airplane
yawed violently the other way, a common "feature" of old airplanes
and sailplanes, perhaps a bit worse on this one. More modern airplanes
mitigate or eliminate this "adverse yaw" with various tricks, but
this one doesn't have any of them. Rudder inputs didn't do a lot for roll.
Then, the big surprise! I gently raised the nose, slowly increasing back
pressure, increasing pitch rate, and almost immediately it felt like a giant
hand pulled on the up cable, and the airplane pitched up further, rather hard!
First time I'd EVER seen that, and Charlie laughed at the look on my face. I
tried that several times more, letting the nose go up a little further each
time, and it never showed a sign of the nose stopping. I assume it might have
gone all the way to the stall, nose still coming up. I think it was right
there that I fell in love with the airplane, for any machine with a quirk like
that deserves to be loved.
Returning to the airport was also interesting, for the airplane is
remarkably slick and clean, and very difficult to slow down! I'd never have
believed it from the looks. I'm usually very uncomfortable with gear and full
flaps out on the old airplanes, because most have very high drag, and an
engine failure in that configuration will be a real problem. The B-24 flies
quite nicely on three engines, level flight, gear down and full flaps! That
really had me mumbling to myself.
Landings are a pleasure, she's what I call a "yelper." Many
airplanes will squeal a bit at touchdown, as the rubber meets the tarmac, and
the nicer the landing, the longer the squeal. This one is much louder, and
yelps every time, even on less-than-good landings. (Ask me how I know!) Final
approach is around 105 knots to short final, but not less than 95, then power
is gently reduced so as to have the throttles closed entering the flare.
There's plenty of time to reduce the sink rate for the final few feet of
descent, which gives a very reasonable impact at touchdown. Well, *I* thought
it was reasonable ... you'll have to ask Charlie why he was wincing.
Generally speaking, in tailwheel airplanes I prefer to do full-stop
landings, or at least stop-and-go landings (with sufficient runway), as there
is much training value in the landing (and takeoff) roll. With nosedraggers,
especially big ones, I prefer touch-and-gos. They save an enormous amount of
time taxiing back, and also save a lot of wear and tear on the old birds. They
are surprisingly easy in most of the big birds. As soon as the airplane is
stable on the landing roll, the instructor will reposition the flaps and trim,
and call for power at the appropriate time. Liftoff is almost immediate, for
very little speed will be lost.
My three landings passed all too quickly. Climbing in the pattern after my
second, Charlie simulated an engine failure, I went through the drill
("Power, gear, flaps, identify, verify, feather, mixture,
checklist"), and the final landing was done with zero thrust on that
engine. That too was a touch-and-go, and I was a certified B-24 copilot.
Charlie took the controls, and I called "Okay, time in on the check
ride." The less said about that, the better, for I hate him. Nice smooth
ILSs, where I'm lucky to keep the needles from breaking the stops. We did the
airwork (steep turns, stall series, actual engine shutdown and restart,
simulated other emergencies) and then when we came back to the airport, we
discovered that the ILS had been shut down while we were flying. That made us
park it, and we spent an hour or more searching for another airport with an
open runway, an ILS, and a wind that permitted its use. San Angelo seemed the
only reasonable alternative, so we grabbed a bite, and took off again. The
80-nm flight went quickly, then we did the four required approaches, two
precision (one with an engine simulated out), two non-precision (one with
engine out), circling, missed, rejected landing, rejected takeoff, etc., and
we were done with Charlie's checkride.
We parked it at San Angelo for a break, some air conditioning, and copious
quantities of lemonade, a most welcome relief from the 100°F+ temperatures
outside. Those who haven't been there can't imagine the heat in a warbird
cockpit, on a hot day. One must develop a mantra, and I use "Gosh, this
is fun, gosh, this is fun
" while drinking lots of water. I said, LOTS
of water! When it's that hot, you can't even pee. The fighters are even worse,
for there's a big engine, generating LOTS of heat just in front of the
cockpit, with an uninsulated firewall as sole protection. I know, I'm not
getting much sympathy, here.
Carl Riese then climbed into the left seat for his check. Since I was now
utterly comfortable with Charlie's ability, I put him in the right seat, and I
took the jump seat. That's a lot easier for me, as I can then devote 100%
attention to the check ride, without having to act as a required crewmember,
too. But my desire to protect my own life will allow me to do that only with
very special people I've seen in operation first.
We did all of the second check at San Angelo, saving only the two
engine-out and no-flap landings for Midland. Yeah, I hate Carl, too. Needles
aw, you know the story. Disgusting, just disgusting. No chance
to run up my bust rate at all.
About an hour into the ride, while taking the runway for yet another
takeoff, our left scanner called, "Major fuel leak from the left outboard
engine." That engine was immediately shut down (bonus points on the check
ride), and we taxied clear to investigate. Fortunately, it was easy to fix
the large fitting for the main fuel line was loose. Our trusty crew chief
hopped out, broke out a ladder and a wrench, and we were fixed up in a jiffy.
This brings up a near and dear subject, and I might as well unload on the
FAA right here. We take a lot of "heat" from the FAA over the
"minimum crew" issue. The FAA says the airplane (per the manual)
requires a crew of two pilots, no more. This comes up all the time on check
rides, and at airshows under waivers, where the FAA is fanatical about
"essential crew only." The intent is good, for they want minimum
loss of life in case of an accident, and the odds of an accident do indeed go
up in those cases.
we consider FIVE the "minimum essential crew" on the B-24 six on
the B-29 and this incident demonstrates exactly why. These are very old
airplanes, and things DO go wrong, with no way for the cockpit crew to detect
them. That might have been an adequate level of safety in years gone by, but
we can do better by simply carrying a few extra TRAINED people.
Had we taken off with that fuel leak, the risk of fire would have been
very, very high, and we might have handled that ... or not. A major engine
fire is KNOWN to take less than 60 seconds to burn the wing off any of these
airplanes. We carry a crew chief to act as a third man in the cockpit, to
assist the pilots, to replenish the hydraulic fluid when needed, and for
mechanical advice and assistance while we fly. We carry two scanners, whose
job is to maintain a full-time watch out the waist windows, watching for any
problems such as leaking fuel, oil, hydraulic fluid, or anything else. Like
fire, for example, for there is no fire detection on either the B-24 or B-29.
(We're looking at adding it, but it's expensive, and the FAA obstacles are
The B-29 had a real engine fire late last year, and had it not been for the
scanner spotting and calling it immediately, we would have lost the airplane
and all aboard. The entire crew did a heroic job of airmanship on that one,
and I hope the CAF gives them the highest award at the big annual meeting in
I blew an oil line in the C-46 a couple of years ago during a check ride,
and pumped 20 gallons of oil overboard in a few minutes. Our scanner also
caught that one before we ran out of oil, and we landed with five gallons.
That would have trashed the engine, for we would have never known it until the
oil ran out. (Contrary to popular belief, the oil temperature will NOT rise as
the oil runs out.) That sure made a believer of the FAA Inspector riding the
jump seat that day!
I have (once) had to tell a noisy FAA Inspector very quietly, "I'm
sorry, but I consider three the minimum essential crew on the C-46, and I will
have three on board for this show. If you wish to violate me on that, go
ahead. But I'd like to think you'll look pretty silly, if you do." He
We resumed Carl's checkride, but 30 minutes into that, right after another
takeoff, the scanner called, "A panel is loose on the left engine,
inboard side." I was able to see this one from my seat behind the left
pilot seat, but had to look well back to do so. It was a one foot by one foot
hinged panel, and the piano wire in the hinge had worked itself out, leaving
the panel supported by only the three Dzus fasteners along the bottom edge,
and the bonding strap at the hinge. We landed and fixed that, and the rest of
the checkride was uneventful. We started about 0500 in the morning and
finished up at 2100 that night. Long, hard, hot day, even if we did have
Tuesday was B-29 ground school, which Charlie gave. Excellent job, too,
with minimal tools, and very little advance notice for him. Another long day,
from 0800 to 1700, very short breaks, and like drinking from a fire hose. But
it's a very simple airplane (from a pilot's standpoint), and the ground school
was quite adequate.
morning it was Bill Goeken's turn in the hot seat of the B-24, and he did a
fine job, too. Yet ANOTHER airline pilot! (Aren't there any pretty young
female GA pilots out there who want to fly these things?) In Bill's case, that
is mitigated somewhat by his owning an old Howard DGA-15. These guys may fly
those stinking, screeching, kerosene-burning jets for a living (well, Charlie
just retired), but at least their hearts are firmly wrapped around round
engines with pistons, the way God and Pratt & Whitney meant them to be
made. I ask you, have you EVER heard someone listen to a jet engine whine at
startup and stand there with tears in their eyes the way so many do when a big
old radial coughs, farts, and comes to life? If there are tears at the jets,
they're tears of pain from the howl.
(Before I am flamed, I must admit that as much as I love the old C-46, I'd
not care to go back to flying it for a living, from Omaha to Oklahoma City in
the summer, and in Alaska in the winter. Jet fuel smells and sounds just fine
in cases like that!)
There are hot rumors that I may see some more of the B-24 and B-29, and I
certainly hope so!
Moving On ...
On a personal note, if I may, I'm delighted to announce that I've made my
last flight for Japan Airlines and IASCO, the contractor I've worked with for
so long. It has been a good 33 years, and I've even enjoyed the past two years
as an over-60 copilot, flying with my good friends at the LAX crew base. Good
33 years on that job, I have decided to strike out in a new direction. As I
finish this column, I am commencing training on the Gulfstream G-IV at
Simuflite in Dallas/Fort Worth, and will be working with AVjet in Burbank if I
successfully complete this training, and theirs. I am quite excited over this
new turn of events, and looking forward to working with a new machine (even if
it is a jet), glass cockpits, and the world of FMS. I hope that will give me
almost as much spare time to continue monkeying around with warbirds, doing a
little writing, and continuing to learn about internal combustion engines.
If you should respond to this column, please be aware I may be tardy or
terse in answering, because I expect this training to be quite demanding and
I'll need to focus all my attention on it.
On another subject: With the help of donations from some very generous
people, we are about to fully instrument the engines on "China
Doll," the old C-46 based in Camarillo. I expect to be able to produce
some real data on the old R-2800 engine that has never been seen before. Major
thanks to JP Instruments, they are donating the majority of the cost for four
JPIs, 60 feet of wiring for 36 cylinders, two fuel flow instruments, and
assorted hardware. You'll be reading about that, soon.
Be careful up there!