Without 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 them.
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!
“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 an “RLB3O”).
(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 mid-1943.
(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.
NDPERs, LOAs, and Currency
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 this, see:
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 all this?”
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.
B-29 Warmup: “Hey, Wanna Go?”
“Hey, 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 simple.
Getting the Hang of ‘Lil
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’ along.”
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 100F+ 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 always cent… 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.
But 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 formidable.)
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 October.
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 didn’t.
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 several breaks.
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.
Wednesday 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 people, all.
After 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!