B-24 Liberator – The Plane That Saved Europe

Allegedly the ATC controllers at the Frankfurt, Germany Airport are renowned as a short-tempered and impatient lot. They, it is alleged, not only expect one to know one’s gate parking location, but how to get there without any assistance from them. So it was with some amusement that we (a Pan Am 747) listened to the following exchange between Frankfurt ground control and a British Airways 747 after landing, call sign Speedbird 206.

Speedbird 206: “Frankfurt, Speedbird 206 clear of active runway.”

Ground: “Speedbird 206. Taxi to gate Alpha One-Seven.” The BA 747 pulled onto the main taxiway and slowed to a stop.

Ground: “Speedbird, do you not know where you are going?!?”

Speedbird 206: “Stand by, Ground, I’m looking up our gate location now.”

Ground (with quite arrogant impatience): “Speedbird 206, have you not been to Frankfurt before?”

Speedbird 206 (coolly): “Yes, twice in 1944, but it was dark,… and I didn’t land.”


I recently came across the humorous story above about the Captain of a Pan Am/Speedbird flying into Frankfurt, Germany. I have seen this before and don’t know if the exchange ever really took place, or if it is just “airplane urban myth”. But it did remind me of one of my frequent trips to visit my father at the Boca Raton Airport, KBCT.

January 31, 2009 was crisp and very cool, even in sunny South Florida. A beautifully restored Consolidated B-24 Liberator bomber was on the ramp at the Boca Airport (KBCT) for public tours and rides. As I taxied in to the ramp in the A36, I could see a large line of people consisting of all ages, waiting their turn to view the inside of the aircraft. Others were milling about the aircraft, gazing up in wonderment.

Here are a few pics as we walked around and explored the inside of the aircraft:

Dad in front of the B-24

Me in front of the B-24

The view out of the nose turret

Pilots panel

Co-pilots panel

Bombs Away!

.50 cal. machine gun

B-24 Radio Station

The Consolidated B-24 Liberator was the most produced aircraft in US military history, with over 18,000 built. The very first were made in 1939 for sale to Great Britain and France, as the United States was not yet directly involved in the war.

Today, a very few of these aircraft have been completely overhauled and refurbished as a labor of love by various non-profit aviation history groups. Groups like  The Confederate Air Force and The Collings Foundation work tirelessly to restore various warbirds to ensure that contemporary generations of Americans learn of the history and understand the sacrifices of the WWII generation.

As we clambered through the aircraft, Dad told me of his two older brothers who both flew in WWII. Sherwood was a Waist Gunner on the B-24 and Robert was a Bombardier on a B-17. One in Europe and the other in the Pacific.

At the Boca event, we met an elderly B-24 pilot who flew in WWII. He was well into his upper ‘80’s but still very spry. He told us of “kids” like him who were commanding these aircraft into war over France and Germany at the tender age of 20 or 21. These pilots had only a few hundred hours total-time flying, and the fatality rate was extremely high.

B-24s were not pressurized, and at maximum altitude, the temperature in the cabin could reach -15 or -20 degrees below freezing. These planes needed to fly high to remain out of reach of anti-aircraft guns on the ground. Two-hundred ninety miles per hour is not very fast when you are trying to outrun AAA flak.

The Vet went on to tell us that the crews fashioned stainless steel plates to put under their seats in order to help keep them from being hit in the butt by ground fire.

It is hard to imagine what it must have been like flying these birds over Europe, being shot at by the Third Reich, and knowing that this flight could very easily be your last.

From AviationHistory.com:

Consolidated B-24J Liberator
Wing span: 110 ft 0 in (33.53 m)
Length: 67 ft 2 in (20.47 m)
Height: 18 ft 0 in (5.49 m)
Empty: 37,000 lb. (16,798 kg)
Operational: 65,000 lb (29,510 kg)
Maximum Speed: 290 mph (467 km/h)
Service Ceiling: 28,000 ft. (8,540 m)
Range: 2,200 miles (3,540 km)
Four Pratt & Whitney R-1830-43 or 65 1,200 hp 14 cylinder radial engines.
Six .50-calibre guns, two each in nose and dorsal turrets and in waist positions, and four .303-in. guns in a Boulton Paul tail turret. Internal bomb load of 8,000 lbs. (3,632 kg) with optional external bomb racks.
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