Last week I got the privilege to fly in what I believe is the last of the flying B24s from WWII. I was a guest of the Collins Foundation that maintains a B24, B17, and a P51. I was asked if I would like to fly in the B24 because my dad piloted one in WWII. This plane had many casualties in the war as it was a bomber with little in the way of extras. We were informed not to step onto the bomb doors as well as the front wheel well door as these were made to break away from the inside (you would want a loose bomb hanging around inside the plane). After takeoff we could wander and crawl throughout the plane. I was struck by the lack of shielding from the inevitable flack that most bombing runs must have encountered. Those bomb doors couldn’t have shielded the crew very well.
I was also struck by the fact that the crew must have been all small and agile. I crawled to the front gunner position by going through a small space under the pilot and the copilot. The front gunner sat in a tiny seat in a very windy nose of the plane protected by plexiglass. The bombardier sat in what seemed an even smaller seat directly under the front gunner.
The plane has a metal skin and metal ribs and nothing else. You can see the ground from a few places in the plane and the mid section gunner has two wide open windows about 3 feet by 4 feet and each side of the plane to shoot at the enemy with a machine gun mounted on each side of the plane. I stuck my head out the window and looked around. It was of course very windy, but I’ve never had an opportunity to stick my head out the window of a plane before.
The ball turret in the belly of the plane looked as if it was built to has a third grader. It must have taken real guts to climb into that little compartment when going to battle. There is an equally small top gunner compartment and rear gunner compartment. A total of 6 high caliber machine guns protected the plane from enemy fighters.
We were told to not grab a hold of cables as we made our way through the plane as these were the cables leading to the rear flaps and the wing flaps. I found myself staring at these cables thinking of the pilot up front and how this plane was the epitome of utilitarianism.
I also got to go right into the cockpit behind the pilot and the copilot. No special doors in this plane to keep out terrorists (they were suggested by the FAA). I sat and watched the pilot maneuver this old beast of a plane and imagined my father sitting there 70 years ago. The only change I could see in the control panel was the addition of a GPS. The rest looked very old and functional. The gas gauges were a couple of glass tubes! There were switches to auxiliary tanks for each of the four engines and a very old looking communication system.
Throughout the plane there were oxygen tanks for the crew (not used anymore). This was necessary for higher altitude flying since obviously we weren’t pressurized. We flew very low to the ground and it was a nice sunny day so we were very comfortable. I thought of my Dad and crew flying from Italy to targets some of which must have taken him over the Alps. The frosty plane must have really been the opposite of comfort then.