April 23, 2024
B-24 Liberator 'Dragon and his Tail' of the Collings Foundation, USA. Pic Copyright: Lani Muche's Warbirds
B-24 Liberator ‘Dragon and his Tail’ of the Collings Foundation, USA. Pic Copyright: Lani Muche’s Warbirds

Collings Foundation, USA T18 B-24J-85-CF (44-44052)

The Liberator currently owned and operated by the American private operator, the Collings Foundation (www.collingsfoundation.org), is an example retrieved from AFTC Jalahalli with the unusual number of T-18. It was formerly KH 191 of the RAF.

It was built at the Consolidated Aircraft plant at Fort Worth, Texas, one of the five plants making up the Liberator production pool. (This plant later became the Fort Worth division of General Dynamics, which housed the F-16 production line. It is now part of the Lockheed Martin conglomerate, and is likely to house the JSF production line.) HE771 and HE877, two other IAF Liberator survivors, now respectively at the Fantasy of Flight facility in Florida, and at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Arizona, were built at the same plant.

RAF Veteran Spencer Jenkins had this picture of KH191 in his collection. Pic Copyright: Spencer Jenkins via Navin Bala Click to Enlarge

The aircraft is believed to have served with 8 Squadron RAF, which had only a very brief existence in ACSEA. The unit was formed on 15 May 1945 at Jessore, as a Special Duties Squadron, and disbanded on 15 November 1945 at Minneriya. The aircraft was then flown to Chakeri where it was struck off charge on 11 April 1946.

Its Indian history does not appear to have been recorded. The unusual IAF serial number, and the location in India from which it was recovered (Jalahalli, which houses the Indian Air Force’s technical training college, for its technical and engineering personnel), suggest that it may have been a non-flying instructional airframe in IAF service. However, a Collings Foundation publication says that it was restored by the IAF in 1948. If this is accurate, this airframe would be one of the earliest to be restored in India. It may then have served with No 5 Squadron, the first Indian Liberator squadron; rather than (or besides) No 6 Squadron, the last operator of the type, which most Indian survivors are known to have served with. However, as stated, its IAF service history before it went to Jalahalli is not currently known.

The aircraft was procured from India by the British restorer Doug Arnold, of Warbirds of Great Britain, in March 1981. It was dismantled and flown to the UK in a Shorts Belfast operated by Heavy Lift Cargo Airlines. The Collings Foundation acquired the aircraft from Warbirds of Great Britain in 1984. It was transported by sea from the UK to Boston, Massachusetts, and then in four truckloads to Stow, in the same state, the base of the Collings Foundation. The Foundation originally intended only a static restoration, but strong interest, particularly from former Liberator crews and their families in the United States, resulted in the five-fold increase of scope, to a full flying restoration. Major corporate sponsorships were secured for the restoration project, including from General Dynamics (now part of Lockheed Martin), the corporate successor to Consolidated Aircraft. Even so, more than $1.3 million was spent, and 97,000 man-hours of labour (over half voluntary) expended, on the restoration. Tom Reilly Vintage Aircraft, of Kissimmee, Florida, carried out much of the restoration work on the airframe and powerplant. Volunteers did much of the work on armaments, radios, oxygen systems and finish.

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BEFORE AND AFTER: The cockpit was in derelict condition when shipped to the US. The excellent quality of the restoration work can be seen in the picture on the right. Pic Copyright: Navin Bala

So this aircraft, which may well have been a non-flying instructional airframe in IAF service, is currently the only survivor in flying condition. The Collings Foundation have invested an enormous amount of time, effort, and finances in re-building this aircraft to flying condition, and in using it to educate the American public about the history of this and other aircraft types. It flies regularly at airshows, historic and exhibition events, and is still subjected to a rigorous inspection, maintenance and servicing schedule.

The aircraft is widely regarded as an outstanding restoration, down to authentic radios, oxygen systems, and turret guns which include working belt feeds. The restoration also includes ancillary equipment such as parachutes and flares. It has received numerous awards for the completeness and authenticity of its restoration, at aviation conventions and fly-ins in the USA.

The port side of ‘Dragon and its Tail’ shows the ‘All American’ paint scheme. Pic Copyright: Navin Bala Click to Enlarge

It is in USAAF markings, and for some time wore those of the 8th Air Force on the port side and those of the 15th Air Force on the starboard. For a period it bore the name All American. In 1998 its name and associated artwork were changed, to The Dragon and his Tail. Both represent the identities of actual Liberator examples that served during World War 2; The Dragon and his Tail was the very last Liberator scrapped in the USA. It carries particularly spectacular art-work, running nearly the entire length of the fuselage.

The aircraft is, as of mid 2003, still in full flying condition. During 2002 it undertook a flying tour of locations in Florida and Georgia states.

The aircraft has been used in recent years as the venue for Liberator crew reunions and similar events honouring former USAAF veterans. It was also used to give the daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel Leon Vance, a Liberator pilot and posthumous recipient of the United States’ highest decoration for gallantry, the Congressional Medal of Honour, the experience of flying in the aircraft type in which her father flew and gave his life. (He had given his aircraft his daughter’s name.) And it is a frequently and emotionally-retold legend, worthy of a Bollywood script but which Collings Foundation staff will swear to, that a wheelchair-bound former Liberator crewman regained the use of his legs while visiting this restored example of the aircraft type in which he had served, years earlier. The authenticity of the Collings Foundation’s restoration is remarkable; and the Indian Air Force can draw a measure of quiet satisfaction in its contribution to the survival of this particular aircraft.

Text Contents of this page are copyright © K Sree Kumar.
Photo Contents of this page are copyright © Navin Bala

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