B24 Liberator: A Manned Aerial Platform

Rich Gunther
July 1, 2006
ES 555 Small-Format Aerial Photography


On May 29, 2006, Memorial Day, I had a unique aviation experience. This experience allowed me to connect past, present and perhaps, the future. The past was the experience of a family member during World War II. The present was my need to have a field experience appropriate for small-format aerial photography. Finally, I looked into the the future with urban sprawl consuming natural habitat around Mount Diablo. The connecting element for these time periods was a vintage B24 Liberator.

B24 Liberator

The last fully operational B24 is owned and operated by the Collings Foundation which is headquartered in Stow, Massachusetts. Collings Foundation The Collings Foundation is a non-profit organization dedicated to preserving vintage aircraft and automobiles. Three aircraft, the B24, B25 and B17, are flown annually around the United States. Touring the country allows surviving crew members, family members and people interested in aviation an opportunity to see and experience restored military aircraft. The tour provides brave people a chance to fly in World War II vintage aircraft.

B24's were used for strategic bombing during World War II in the Atlantic and Pacific theaters. This aircraft was built in August, 1944 by Consolidated Aircraft Company in Fort Worth, Texas. It was owned and operated by the British Royal Air Force in the Pacific theater. After World War II, the B24 was aquired by the Indian Airforce and was used up until 1981. The Collings Foundation restored the aircraft to its original condition in 1989.

Historical Connection

My historical connection with the B24 is through my father-in-law, Richard H. McAdams, who is now deceased. Mr. McAdams flew in this type of aircraft as a tail gunner during World War II. He participated in bombing missions that originated in England with destinations throughout German occupied Europe.

B24 Crew in England, 1944
Richard H. McAdams (kneeling far right)

Like many men of his generation my father-in-law did not share his wartime experiences with his children's generation. It took the birth of my son, Ross, to open Grandpa up! Mr. McAdams was able to describe wartime experiences to his grandson and eventually, his children. Seeing the B24 gave me a greater appreciation for my father-in-law and for all the men who served in aircraft, like the B24, during wartime. It was a very nice way to spend Memorial Day 2006.

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A Flight to Remember

My present connection with this B24 is that it provided a unique manned aerial platform for small-format aerial photography. Here is a brief overview of the flight I took on the B24. On the day of the flight, the B24, was located at a civilian airport in Livermore, California. Like all plane rides the two most exciting parts are the take off and landing and this ride was to be no different. Turning on four Pratt and Whitney engines let me know that this was going to be both a visual and auditory experience. Once the pilot warmed up the engines the plane taxied along the tarmac with a jerky ride. The jerky ride was caused by the pilot alternately applying and releasing wheel brakes. This alternation of brakes is how the aircraft is steered. Arriving at the start of the runway, the pilot went to full throttle, maximum decibels and slow acceleration. After rolling the entire length of the runway the B24 lethargically lifted off. We headed west over Dublin, CA and then banked northward following highway 680. Flying north we reached a top speed of 168 miles per hour while maintaining an elevation of 1500 feet. We went as far north as Concord, CA. The pilot banked to the west and eventually headed south back along highway 680 towards Livermore. The final descent began with a gradual deceleration and a slow spiral towards the runway. Touchdown was very hard and highlighted with a loud bang, smoke and the smell of burnt rubber. The flight lasted only 25 minutes but will be remembered for a long time. One other detail about the flight is air rushing through the fuselage. The B24 did not have a pressurized cabin so the rustle of fast moving air is everywhere. This is not an issue at 1500 feet during a springtime flight but at 10,000 feet during a European winter this air movement would be quite chilling.

Pratt & Whitney Engines
High-oblique view looking west above San Ramon, CA

During the flight, passengers were allowed free movement about the cabin. Howerver, due to the roughness of the flight great care had to be taken while walking or crawling about the fuselage. The images below were taken during the flight to illustrate the crudeness and hazards within the aircraft. The side gun ports are completely open just as they were during wartime (A). The bomb bay is authentic so missteps would lead to a quick exit from the plane (B). There are all kinds of wires, tubes, and metal parts completely exposed (C). After takeoff, I immediately went forward through the bomb bay and sat in the front of the aircraft near the bombsite (D). There was good viewing through several glass windows that allowed me to take lots of pictures for my field project.

Interior of B24 Fuselage

A. Open Gunport

B. Walkway in Bomb bay

C. Exposed Hazards

D. Bombsite

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Mount Diablo: Surrounded by Urban Development

The primary purpose of this flight was to take aerial photographs. To take photographs I used an Olympus D-560 digital camera. The effective number of pixels is 3.2 mb. The camera is fully automatic. The majority of the images were taken from the front of the aircraft and a few were taken from the side gunner position. As I said before, the side gunner position is wide open so I had to be careful. During flight safety explanations we were warned not stick cameras out the opening because the 168 mile an hour wind would tear your camera out of your hands!

The subject of the following images is the loss of habitat in the area west and south of Mount Diablo. Mt. Diablo State Park Mount Diablo at 3,849 feet of elevation is the tallest of the East Bay area coastal mountains. Mount Diablo is an island of natural beauty surrounded by urban development. Fortunately, a significant portion of the mountain belongs to the State of California so it will be protected for future generations. However, the surrounding foothills and valleys are privately owned so development is reducing the buffer habitat around Mount Diablo. The following images show quite clearly how homes, streets, schools, and golf courses modify the natural habitat.

Low-oblique view of highway 680 as it passes through San Ramon, California. Highway 680 is major 8 lane freeway that runs north-south through the valley immediately west of Mount Diablo. This section of San Ramon was built in the 1940's. San Ramon High school is visible in the upper portion of the image.
This is a vertical view of a single family residential area in Walnut Creek, California. The houses in this area were built during the 1960's. Mature vegetation around the houses represents 40 years of watering and care by homeowners. Natural grasses and oak woodland begins on the right hand side of the image. This is an old boundary between the urban landscape and open parkland that occupies Mount Diablo.
A high-oblique view of an old golf course built in 1916. Diablo Country Club is located south of Walnut Creek resting in the foothills of Mount Diablo. A large water tank is visible to the right of center. This water supports the vegetation on the golf course. The vegetation would quickly die during the hot, dry summer months if not for regular irrigation. Early development on the western flank of Mount Diablo did not push over the foothills.
Population pressure for more East Bay housing drove development onto the southwest flank of Mount Diablo in the 1970's. Roads, utilities,and drainage systems were put in to support new housing developments. This is a very scenic area and highly desirable place to live so expensive, single family homes were built. A patch work of housing developments can be seen on creeping towards Mount Diablo.
Low-oblique view of new golf course and housing developement in San Ramon, California. This is located on the southwest flank of Mount Diablo. Developed in the 1990's this area features an 18-hole golf course and massive homes built along the fairways. This view shows the natural rolling hills just beyond the houses. This will be an area of conflict between the animals native to this area, like coyotes, deer and racoons, as they come into contact with humans and their domesticated animals.
A future housing development in Dublin, California. The rolling hills that are now being built on require significant modification. Ridges must be flattened and ravines must be filled in. California is known for having houses slide down hillsides during exceptionally wet winter seasons. This area will be at risk for earth movement because Mount Diablo receives quite a bit of orographic precipitation. Evidence of this precipitation can be seen on the mountain by the band of trees that begin part way up. The band represents the transition from grassland to an oak-pine woodland.
School districts are busy buying land and building schools. This new school is located in Dublin, California and appears to be a junior high or middle school. It is not a high school because there are not a big parking lot for student drivers and the athletic field are quite limited. One side of the campus is still vacant but future streets and lots are clearly visible on the ground.
Low-oblique view of a large condominium development in Dublin, California. These condominiums are four stories tall and are high density housing. High density housing consumes less land than the traditional single family homes that have built in this area. This development provides a central open space and walking trails. Developments like this are needed in the area to reduce the loss of habitat.

Mount Diablo: An Uncertain Future

Loss of habitat is a big issue in the East Bay area hills. This area has wonderful climate that draws people from all over the world. Increasing human population has created tremendous demand for housing. Solving housing issues has been addressed in the past and present by building more single family homes. My images only show development on the west and southwest sides of Mount Diablo. Development has already occurred on the northern and northwest sides as well. A new town, Mountainhouse, is being built on the eastern side of Mount Diablo. So, within a few years Mount Diablo will become an isolated mountain-island habitat. The future of Mount Diablo as a wild and scenic natural habitat is certainly in jeopardy. Hopefully, this issue is solved before it is too late.

Developers take aim for future housing
Western slope and summit of Mount Diablo