Consolidated B24 Liberator

If not for the Indian Air Force flying the Liberator till the late sixties, the world would not have a single flying example as of now. Photograph shows the handing over ceremony of the B-24 Liberator to the Royal Air Force Museum in 1975. Pic Courtesy : HAL Museum via Dr. Shiv Shankar Sastry Click to Enlarge

By K S Nair

A question for all you aviation history enthusiasts who found your way to this page: Which World War Two aircraft was built in the largest numbers, by the Western allies? (C’mon; we know you saw it in the link that brought you here!!)

Hint: It was a four-engined heavy bomber. No, not the Lancaster, nor the Flying Fortress, despite the Hollywood coverage those two types have received. Answer: The World War Two aircraft built in the largest numbers by the Western allies was of course -- as you all knew perfectly well!! -- the Consolidated B-24 Liberator. Something like nineteen thousand examples of this type were built, by a production pool consisting of five different factories in the United States. No other Western type comes close (though some Soviet types may have been built in even larger numbers).


But despite those enormous construction numbers, Liberators have not survived, in anything like the numbers that some other World War Two types have. The famous Spitfire, which took such hold of British popular imagination, survives to the tune of around a hundred examples; guaranteed crowd-pullers in virtually every major military aviation museum and warbird airshow in Europe. The Mustang lives on in comparable numbers in the US. The Dakota survives worldwide in even larger numbers, many still flying, sometimes re-engined with modern engines. But only a handful of Liberators remain. Recent surveys by the British aviation magazine FlyPast have turned up roughly ten survivors on static display worldwide, and three (now perhaps down to two) still in flying condition. (There are some partially restored airframe sections and cockpits, and some wrecks still in storage, in addition to these.) So what’s the Indian warbird connection then? The answer is that of these dozen-odd worldwide survivors, at least six are former Indian Air Force aircraft.

The story of how the Indian Air Force became the world’s last operator of the B-24 Liberator, and the source of something like half the world’s remaining examples, is almost completely undocumented outside India, and almost unknown outside a small coterie of type enthusiasts. Yet, even the fragments on record make up a fascinating story.

To start with, the aircraft were not acquired new – they were painstakingly re-built, from 1948 onwards, out of derelict British-operated (but US-owned) aircraft that had been wrecked and abandoned in India at the end of World War Two. The scale and ingenuity of this restoration effort is often inadequately documented, in the potted histories of these former Indian warbirds now resident overseas. When these aircraft were abandoned in India by the RAF, they had actually been deliberately damaged, supposedly beyond repair -- this in order to meet the legal “disposal” requirements of Lend-Lease, under which the Americans had originally made the aircraft available to the British. They had been left standing in the open for years, exposed to the fierce Indian sun and monsoon rains. The restoration effort often required parts from several different aircraft, to put one back in the air. It was certainly not a case of removing covers from an aircraft that had been hermetically cocooned and left in careful storage with the specific intent to fly again, in the manner of aircraft placed in Flyable Hold at the AMARC facility in Arizona! The Indian restoration started from much further back, and was accomplished in the face of significant odds. One day it will perhaps be researched and documented, in the manner it deserves.

A definitive history of the Indian Liberator re-build process has never been compiled (an eminently readable account of the RAF’s scrapping process is at Robert Quirck's site http://www.rquirk.com/fail/322mu/322mu.htm) but it is thought to have started in 1948. When it started, it was still an Indian Air Force-run operation. It was taken over subsequently by Hindustan Aircraft (now Hindustan Aeronautics) Limited, and continued till 1961.

The first Indian-rebuilt Liberators equipped No 5 Squadron (“The Tuskers”), which assumed the heavy bomber role; the first time the Indian Air Force had taken on this role. As more Liberators were re-built, from 1951 onwards they were used to re-form and equip No 6 Squadron (“The Flying Dragons”), which had been number-plated, from Independence until its re-formation on Libs; as the assets of the pre-Independence No 6 Squadron had gone to Pakistan on Partition. Finally No 16 Squadron also operated the type, functioning primarily as a type conversion unit.

Nos 5 and 16 Squadrons converted to the English Electric Canberra in 1957 and 1959 respectively. No 6 Squadron continued to operate the Liberator, in the Maritime Reconnaissance role, for another decade. Fitted with a rudimentary ASV radar, and frequently exercising with the Indian Navy, No 6 Squadron kept the Liberator flying on, criss-crossing the skies over India and the seas that wash its shores, until the end of 1968. (That, incidentally, was the same year the IAF inducted its second supersonic type, the Sukhoi Su-7!) In 1968, as the Indian Air Force finally began the process of moving on from its long-serving Liberators, it donated some examples to the air force museums of other countries that had operated the type. Generally the only condition imposed on the donation was that the receiving country should organise and meet the cost of ferrying the aircraft back. One Liberator each was donated to Canada (the Canadians donated a Lysander to the Indian Air Force museum in exchange), the United States and the UK. (Over the next few years the IAF also donated or sold two or three more Liberators to American private collections; some of these being non-flying examples.) The Canadians and the Americans sent ferry crews to India immediately, to collect their gifts. These were volunteer crews; with multi-engine experience, but not qualified on the Liberator -- by this time, of course, there was hardly anyone anywhere in the world current on the Liberator, other than the crews of No 6 Squadron, IAF! The ferry crews were provided a week or so of conversion training by No 6 Squadron, after which they successfully ferried their aircraft back, the many thousands of miles to their home countries.

The British took somewhat longer to arrange the collection of the aircraft donated to them. By the time they had made the arrangements necessary, it was 1974. No 6 Squadron’s Lib-qualified crews had moved on by then, to Super Constellations or Canberras, and even their long-standing currency on type had lapsed; so there was no organised conversion training available. A crew had to be scraped together, to fly the example donated to the British back to the UK, while conforming to current safety and regulatory requirements. The scratch crew that finally accomplished this flight consisted of an IAF test pilot, a former IAF Liberator flight-engineer, and a former RAF Liberator pilot.

Nos 5, 6 and 16 Squadrons of the Indian Air Force still fly today; all three now operating the Sepecat Jaguar. Most of the hardy Liberators which served these units for so long have gone; but one airframe still stands at the Indian Air Force’s own museum, just outside Delhi. Five other Indian-resurrected examples, the subjects of the following pages, are preserved at overseas locations, set out below.

So there it is – the World War Two aircraft type produced in the largest numbers by the Western allies, and the Indian re-births of half its survivors. This page cannot fully record the achievements of the Indian Air Force and HAL aircrews and technicians who contributed to keeping the Liberator flying in India for so long. What it does attempt to do is to publicise, in a single site, the existence and worldwide locations of these Indian-rebuilt warbirds, at least five of which now live overseas; honoured, cared-for and admired in retirement. They remain testaments to the robustness of their American design and construction, and to the Indian ingenuity and expertise (blended with considerable sweat and toil, and some improvisation!) which kept them flying in India for twenty years longer than anywhere else.

TABLE:

Serial numbers of former Indian Air Force B-24 Liberators currently on static display or in flying condition in India and worldwide.

Serial No US SNo RAF Serial No Current Location
HE-924 44-44213 KH-342 Air Force Museum, Palam. New Delhi, INDIA
HE-807 44-50206 KN-751 RAF Museum Cosford, Wolverhampton, UK
HE-877 44-44175 KH-304 Pima Air and Space Museum, Tucson , Arizona, USA
HE-771 44-44272 KH-401 Kermit Weeks Fantasy of Flight , Polk, Florida, USA
HE-773 44-50154 KN-820 National Aviation Museum, Ottawa, Ontario, CANADA
T-18 44-44052 KH-191 Collings Foundation, Stowe, Massachusetts, USA

Sources:
The information on these pages was collated from the following sources:
1. Bowman , Martin W : "B-24 Liberator: 1939-45", Patrick Stephens Limited (publisher);
2. Davis, Larry : "B-24 Liberator in Action" , Squadron / Signal Publications;
3. Fail, J E H : “The Survivors”, an article on former SEAC Liberator survivors at http://www.rquirk.com/fail/article/Failsurv.htm;
4. Chopra, Wg Cdr I M : “Liberator – India to England”, FlyPast August and September 1998;
5. The information display in front of Liberator HE 807 / KN 751, at the RAF Museum, Cosford;
6. Pudsey, Col A J : “Operation Longhaul” , Sentinel, October 1968; and
7. Unpublished recollections of former IAF Liberator aircrew and groundcrew.
8. Arnold, Lt Col Rhodes: "Mission Improbable", The Air Line Pilot, March 1970
9. Arnold, Lt Col Rhodes: Letter to editor, Air Classics, April 1970
10. Chaplain, Capt Donald G: "Return of a Gallant Lady", Airman, October 1969
11. Oughton, James D: "Do You Want to Buy a Liberator?", Aviation News,25 October 1973
12. Brochures and publications of the Pima Air & Space Museum

Contents of this page are copyright © K Sree Kumar

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