Heavy going (Pt.1)

With the B-17’s brave but beleaguered WW2 service in the Pacific and its epic contribution to victory in Europe, along with the B-24’s ubiquitous duty in every corner of the conflict, it would be easy to forget that the RAF also operated both types.

Indeed the British were the first to use the American heavies in anger, and their combat experience would profoundly shape the development and success of the USAAF’s mainstay bombers.

RAF pilots found the Liberator and Fortress – and it was only ever ‘Fortress’ in British hands; I guess they thought the ‘Flying’ part was largely self-evident – well designed and easy to operate. However the early models just weren’t ready for the ferocity and operating extremes of modern war. Most were quickly moved to support and long range patrol duties.

Ultimately, the RAF had limited need for the Fortress, but they found the incredible range of the Liberator irresistible, especially over the vast distances of the Atlantic and Far East theatres.

Indicator’s impressions

Indicator’s impressions of the two bombers fits with everything I’ve read about the wing loading and  general handling of each type, however his perspective on operating American heavies is uniquely British.

Once you’ve read his report, fasten your seatbelt for Part Two, where I’ll try to explain the RAF designations for the various marks of B-17 and B-24 in their employ. But first…

Fortress I AN528 (aka AM528) breaks away from the camera, to show her ventral 'bathtub turret' and sliding waist gun windows, both of which were new on B-17Cs.
Fortress I AN528 (aka AM528) breaks away from the camera, to show her ventral ‘bathtub turret’ and sliding waist gun windows, both of which were new on B-17Cs.

Dealing with ‘the drill’

Fuel schematics for the "early" Liberator II and V – based on the B-25D – and, below, the "later" Mk.VI or B-24G/H. Even with fourR-1830-65s turning, 3,004 imperial gallons (3,608 gal/13,656 litres) is a lot of range. (Air Ministry Pilot's Notes)
Fuel schematics for the “early” Liberator II and V – based on the B-25D – and, below, the “later” Mk.VI or B-24G/H. Even with fourR-1830-65s turning, 3,004 imperial gallons (3,608 gal/13,656 litres) is a lot of range. (Air Ministry Pilot’s Notes)

Despite tidy and rational cockpit layouts, American aircraft often tend to give the pilot who has been brought up on British types something of a headache when dealing with ‘the drill’.

The cockpits of big aircraft, in particular, are strangely unlike their British counterparts, though easy enough once a memory system has been perfected to cover the more critical stages of a flight. At least in their earlier forms, the Fortress and the Liberator were particularly demanding of strenuous mental attention, with their turbo-blowers and their ingenious mixture of electric and hydraulic services.

In fact the Liberator, in my experience, is the only aircraft for which a memory system could more effectively be replaced by a purely visual check up and down the massive control pedestal.

There are so many ‘extras’ to be included, such as the control lock and the hydraulic booster pump. I mention these two because they are particularly un-English but especially important.

The former is normally kept, for reasons of comfort, in the locked position until the aircraft is actually taxied onto the runway, and it could be forgotten in spite of the strap holding it up.

At least one accident has been caused by a failure to remember even the booster: The pilot, after landing, absent mindedly stopped the motors which carried the hydraulic pumps and, as the booster motor wasn’t functioning, there was no pressure for the brakes. The entire outfit rolled quietly into the side of a hangar.

The cockpit diagram for a Liberator III (or B-24D). In later Marks, the panel behind the throttle handles was replaced with a Sperry Autopilot. (Air Ministry Pilot's Notes)
The cockpit diagram for a Liberator III (or B-24D). In later Marks, the panel behind the throttle handles was replaced with a Sperry Autopilot. (Air Ministry Pilot’s Notes)

Similar, yet so dissimilar

Key for the Liberator III cockpit diagram. (Air Ministry Pilot's Notes)
Key for the Liberator III cockpit diagram above. (Air Ministry Pilot’s Notes)

Although generally similar in duties, no two aircraft could be so dissimilar in handling qualities as the Fort. and Lib. While the former is a flying machine from start to finish, the latter only begins to feel like one after it has been wound up to cruising speed. The Fortress floats off like a flying machine of the old school, while the Liberator needs to be hauled into the air, where it stays, from the feel of it, largely by virtue of several thousand horses and at an uncomfortable angle until it has gathered more speed.

On landing, the Fortress goes on flying until it is three-pointed and even afterwards, while the Liberator arrives like a controllable and amply-powered cartload of bricks, and has a considerable rate of sink at low approach speeds.

A matter of loading

It’s all just a matter of wing-loading and general design, and I’m not complaining—the Liberator is the ‘modern’ kind of aircraft, and we have learnt to like it that way.

Left sidewall of the Liberator VI – basically the B-24G/B-24H. (Air Ministry Pilot's Notes)
Left sidewall of the Liberator VI – basically the B-24G/B-24H. (Air Ministry Pilot’s Notes)

One almost feels that an intelligent flight engineer, with the handling notes on his knees, could take it up and bring it down again safely. With a tricycle undercarriage there is little tendency to deviate from the straight on take-off, and even that little can be held on the rudders.

When the ASI says 105 mph or so, according to load, you simply pull hard to make it fly. The approach is a matter of holding a more or less constantly steady (or steadily reducing) speed, while the boosts are slowly brought back to lose height until the moment when the wheels touch.

Travelling from A to B is a straightforward combined problem of navigation, meteorology, and applied mechanics. But all bumps seem to be “down” ones.

On the other hand

Key to the Liberator cockpit sidewall diagram. (Air Ministry Pilot's Notes)
Key to the Liberator cockpit sidewall diagram. (Air Ministry Pilot’s Notes)

The Fortress, on the other hand, has more than once been said to behave like a four-engined Anson —a description which adequately covers it. One feels that liberties can be taken with it, and it is flying right down to its stalling speed in the good old-fashioned way.

Because of its comparatively small flap and ground angles it both floats and runs a long way if brought in too fast, and the enormous fin area makes it something of a handful in a strong cross-wind. But it offers no new problems to the pilot brought up on conventional multis.

Boeing’s two-barred gate

Cockpit diagram for the RAF Fortress IIA, which was essentially a B-17E. (Air Ministry Pilot's Notes)
Cockpit diagram for the RAF Fortress IIA, which was essentially a B-17E. The Fortress II was based on the B-17F, and III on the B-17G. See ‘Heavy Going Part 2’ for more details. (Air Ministry Pilot’s Notes)

Incidentally, I have often wondered why no other manufacturer has used Boeing’s ‘two-barred gate’ throttle system by means of which all four engines can be handled as two, while just the two outers can be used separately for taxying.

Perhaps the Englishman, so independent in so many ways, thinks always of control layouts from the solo point of view.

Maybe he doesn’t trust his second pilot or his flight engineer, and likes to feel that he can, if necessary, get round to everything. And so he can, even in American heavies, though it’s a bit of a stretch. In the Fortress, one is liable to fumble with the wrong switch …and it’s such a small switch for that massive undercarriage.

The driver can just sit back

Key for the Fortress IIA cockpit. The IIA was an anglicised B-17E, the II a B-17F, and the III a B-17G. See 'Heavy Going Part 2' for more details. (Air Ministry Pilot's Notes)
Key for the Fortress IIA cockpit. The IIA was an anglicised B-17E. (Air Ministry Pilot’s Notes)

In fact, with a good and reliable partner, the driver can just sit back and rap out orders, or make strange signals during the whole process of taking off and coming back again.

After the initial opening to get the outfit bowling straight and to hold any incipient swing, even the throttles can be taken over by the second pilot, who is much better able to set them to the required boost. At one time it was usual for the flight engineer or second pilot to scream out the boosts as the captain moved the throttles open, and to grab them as the limits were being neared.

In just the same way he would sing out the indicated speeds during the approach, so that there was no need for the captain to take his eyes off the runway.

Quite a melodramatic affair it was: “Twenty inches, twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five, forty… I’ve got ’em ” for the take- off, and “one-thirty, one twenty-five, one-twenty, one-fifteen, one-fifteen… Hold it!” for the approach.

A Coastal Command Liberator GR.V of 86 Squadron RAF, shows off it's high aspect ratio Davis wing. The efficiency of the wing added to the Liberator's famous range, if not its overall handling. (IWM CH 11800)
A Coastal Command Liberator GR.V of 86 Squadron RAF, shows off its high aspect ratio Davis wing. The efficiency of the wing added to the Liberator’s famous range, if not its overall handling. (IWM CH 11800)

Safely down?

And there ‘Indicator’ ends. I’m not sure why his review seems so truncated, but I can’t find a second instalment anywhere. Perhaps space (if not paper) was scarce for this post-war issue, and ‘Indicator’ felt the key task of comparing aircraft – and national sensibilities – had been adequately accomplished!

So let’s move on to a little national IN-sensibility, and the various Marks the RAF gave to their Fortress and Liberator models in Heavy Going, Part Two.

You may want to get a drink ready…

 

Indicator’s impressions first appeared in Flight magazine of November 1st, 1945, as part of their In The Air series.

10 thoughts on “Heavy going (Pt.1)

  1. Very interesting. I am trying to figure out why the RAF went to the trouble of rewriting, and drastically shortening, the Pilot’s Manuals that were used to the USAAF. Did they think the extra information was unimportant? That pilots would have memorized it?
    Also, where the US used written checklists in the cockpit and elaborate procedures in manuals, it appears that RAF pilots were expected to memorize the checklists (“the drill”), and not have a written version with them when flying. In retrospect, this was a bad decision. Can anyone comment?
    I’m writing a book about evolution of checklists and procedures, and the RAF forms part of one chapter. Thanks.

    1. I only have a copy of the RAF manual, so I didn’t realise they’d abridged it. (Still learning several things new every day…) The USAAF manuals I have seen are very comprehensive “manuals” while the RAF’s are simply “pilot’s notes” – I guess that’s the key difference. I suspect the RAF (certainly in the 30s and early 40s) was somewhat tradition-bound in it’s own unique way. I also suspect they were well behind on how advanced and complex their aircraft were becoming. So they probably approached the Fortress, Spitfire et al in much the same way they’d approached their Hawker Harts and Gloster Gauntlets, and earlier Sopwith Camels: Once you’d learned to fly an RAF type, you knew how to fly everything – excess manuals and lists were an unnecessary burden. …But all that’s just my theorising; I hope a veteran or museum can shed more light for you.

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