As the US military was looking to expand production of Boeing’s B-17 bomber in the late 1930s, Washington asked Consolidated Aircraft to start producing the plane.
But after a visit to Boeing’s factory in Seattle, Consolidated proposed a totally new aircraft.
Consolidated was granted a design study for a new bomber with specifications exceeding those of B-17. The company quickly turned out a new bomber design, and it received a contract for a flyable prototype, the XB-24, in March 1939.
On December 29, 1939, the XB-24 took its first flight — just a few months after Nazi Germany’s Blitzkrieg swept over Poland in September. By spring 1940, Adolf Hitler’s forces were marching through Western Europe and Consolidated’s new bomber was sent to the British.
1940 came to a close with Nazi Germany ascendant.
US had not yet entered the war, but President Franklin Roosevelt exhorted American industry to shift from peacetime production and start churning out the materials needed to bolster Allied forces teetering on the brink of defeat.
“Guns, planes, ships, and many other things have to be built in the factories and the arsenals of America. They have to be produced by workers and managers and engineers with the aid of machines which in turn have to be built by hundreds of thousands of workers throughout the land,” Roosevelt said on December 29, 1940. “We must be the arsenal of democracy.”
The B-24 bomber, dubbed the Liberator, would become a mainstay of that arsenal. The hearty bomber saw service in all theaters of the war but played an essential role in the effort to pummel German forces in Europe.
“The B-24 has guts,” the Army Air Force’s pilot-instruction manual said. “It can take it and dish it out. It can carry a bigger bomb load farther and faster, day in and day out, than any airplane that has passed the flaming test of combat.”
Below, you can see how the vaunted B-24 went from prototype to the most mass-produced aircraft in history — helping carry Allied forces to victory along the way:
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By the beginning of 1941, other manufacturers had joined the effort to build B-24s. The Ford Motor Company made the audacious promise to build one bomber every hour — a claim that drew derision from the aircraft industry, which doubted an automobile company was capable of such a feat.
Source: “The Arsenal of Democracy“
In January 1942, when Edsel Ford, then the president of the company named after his father, first saw the B-24 at the Consolidated Aircraft factory in San Diego, he said, “It appeared a monstrosity.” A prototype had been completed a year earlier, and the finished product was 66 feet 4 inches long and 17 feet 11 inches tall, with a wingspan of 110 feet — the longest of any aircraft of any kind in the US.
The wings were “exceptionally long and unusually narrow, with a high-aspect ratio that provided extraordinary lift,” A.J. Baime writes in “The Arsenal of Democracy.” The wing “was mounted shoulder-level on the fuselage so that it looked like arms outstretched, and the four engines hung down.”
The Ford team found it would need 5 miles of wire, cut into almost 3,000 pieces ranging in length from 8 inches to 32 feet, for a B-24. The plane’s components were 85% aluminum alloy and 13% steel. The rest was a mix of magnesium, brass, plastic, rubber, and other materials.
Each bomber also required 360,000 rivets — some one-sixteenth of an inch long and weighing .00005 pounds; others 50 times as long and weighing 0.05 pounds.
Ford and his top engineer, Charles Sorensen, believed Consolidated Aircraft had “created a hell of a weapon,” but they criticized the company’s production method, which was time-consuming and done in the open air, exposing the plane to the heat and cold. The Ford team knew how to build a lot of B-24s quickly: mass production on an assembly line.
Depending on the model, the B-24 was manned by a crew of between seven and 10 men stationed around the plane’s cramped confines. The bombardier, stationed in the belly, controlled the payload doors. The flight crew, including the navigator and flight engineer, also manned the bomber’s machine-gun turrets, which were set in the nose, tail, spine, and belly.
Twenty seven gauges and 12 levers spread across the instrument panel in the cockpit, used to control the bomber’s speed and fuel. The four engines could put out a total of 4,800 horsepower, then the equivalent of 56 Ford V8s.
Source: Military Factory, “The Arsenal of Democracy“
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