March 4, 2024
B-24 Liberator 11130 as displayed at the National Aviation Museum, Rockville, Canada
B-24 Liberator KN-751 is currently displayed in SEAC Colors at the Cosford Museum in UK. The aircraft, orginally HE-807 was gifted by the IAF to the RAF and was flown here in 1974. Note the plaque on the forward fuselage. Pic Copyright: Sree Kumar

The Liberator now on display at the RAF Museum in Cosford, near Wolverhampton in the UK, was formerly HE-807 “K” of No 6 Squadron, Indian Air Force. The full US variant designation is B-24L-20-FO; the British variant designation is said in some sources to be BVI and in others BVIII. It was built by the Ford Motor Company’s plant at Willow Run, Michigan, which was one of five factories making up the Liberator Production Pool.

It was accepted by the US Army Air Force on 6 December 1944, and allocated to the RAF on 31 May 1945 under the Lend-Lease programme, assuming the RAF serial KN751. It was ferried to India, and delivered to 99 Squadron, 231 Group on 26 June 1945. It was based at Dhubalia in Bengal and later at Cocos Island (just north of the Andamans, and now Myanmarese territory) for what remained of World War Two. It flew active bombing missions, as well as supply drops to POW camps. It was flown, among others, by the Cocos Island garrison commander, Major-General J T Durrant of the South African Air Force, who also held the honorary rank of Air Vice-Marshal in the RAF.

Following the end of World War Two, 99 Squadron disbanded, and KN751 was struck off RAF charge on 11 April 1946. In common with other Libs in the theatre, it was delivered to No 322 Maintenance Unit, Kanpur, for storage and disposal. As described on the Introduction page, there was a specific requirement for disposal, as the aircraft had been made available to the RAF under Lend-Lease terms, which specified that at the end of hostilities it was to be either returned to the US or disposed of.

B-24 Liberator KN-751 viewed from the Starboard side. The plaque is afixed on both sides. Pic Copyright: Mikael Olrog Click to Enlarge

The aircraft was refurbished and restored to flying condition by the Indian Air Force and HAL. It was allocated the IAF serial HE-807 and the identification letter “K”. It is believed to have served with No 6 Squadron (“the Flying Dragons”), the specialist maritime reconnaissance squadron of the Indian Air Force and the world’s last mainstream operator of the B-24 Liberator.

During her IAF service this aircraft, like all IAF Liberators, flew in a natural metal finish, wearing IAF roundels and fin flash, and sporting No 6 Squadron’s “Flying Dragons” badge on its nose. It would have been fitted with a rudimentary ASV radar set, for its MR role. Based in Pune but frequently deploying elsewhere, it would have flown for the Indian Air Force till 31 December 1968. After this date all IAF Liberators were withdrawn from service and placed in open storage.

In the course of its last year of IAF service, HE-807 was donated to the Royal Air Force Museum, but arrangements could not be made to fly it to the UK immediately. Between 1970 and 1974 plans were made, aborted, and made again, to ferry it to the UK. An example of the kind of difficulties faced was that of arranging for fuel and lubricants, of specifications that were no longer widely-used, to be made available at staging posts en route.

By the time these arrangements had been made, even the Indian Air Force did not have many aircrew whose Liberator type-qualifications would have been regarded as current. It was therefore particularly difficult to assemble a crew who could fly this aircraft from India to the UK, while conforming to legal and statutory requirements on type currency as of 1974. The crew finally put together for this flight was in some ways particularly distinguished, as it had to be to meet the stringent requirements of the time. It comprised Wing Commander I M Chopra, India’s ETPS-alumnus Chief Test Pilot of the time; Wing Commander Doug Connor, a Canadian national and twice-decorated former RAF Liberator pilot; and Flying Officer Pesi Daruwala, a former IAF Liberator flight engineer. In what Wg Cdr Chopra describes as “a moment of weakness”, they agreed to do without a navigator and a flight signaller for the flight.

Click to Enlarge Before the test flight, the crew poses for a Photograph. From L to R : Wg Cdr I M Chopra, Gp Capt C G Kharas, Wg Cdr Doug O Connor RAF [Retd] and Flt Lt Persi Daruwala .
Pic Copyright: Wg Cdr I M Chopra

HE-807 was eventually flown to the UK in July 1974. The aircraft, in open storage in Pune since 1969, was flown to HAL Bangalore in June to receive new radio navigation aids (including what Wg Cdr Chopra labels “a poor man’s VOR”) for its flight through European airspace, RAF roundels, and its old RAF serial number, KN 751. It was test-flown and accepted by its scratch crew, and flown to Bombay on 1 July. It set out from Bombay for the UK on 2 July, slipping out between two fronts of the worst monsoon weather in 50 years. It staged through Abu Dhabi, Jeddah, Cairo, and Rome, before arriving in the UK.

Numerous snags had to be overcome on the way. These included temperamental propeller pitch controls on one engine; failure of an old radio compass and a new HF radio; and the failure of the elderly autopilot to cope with the scale of turbulence encountered over the Arabian peninsula. In fairness it should be remembered that HE-807 / KN 751’s ferry flight was made five years after those of HE-773 and HE-877, which had flown from India to Canada and the US. And it had only just been retrieved from several years’ open storage, for the second time in its life.

Despite the snags, and thanks to the fine airmanship of its crew, HE-807 / KN 751 arrived at RAF Lyneham ahead of schedule, on 7 July 1974. It even flew an impromptu flypast at an airshow under way that day at Greenham Common, just before landing. A few days later it was flown the short hop from RAF Lyneham to RAF Colerne, which was considered a more suitable location because of superior runway and approach conditions, on its way to join the RAF Museum collection. Wg Cdr Chopra described the story of this flight in the British aviation magazine FlyPast.

As it turned out, the Lyneham – Colerne hop was to be HE-807 / KN751’s last flight. Not long after the Lib arrived there, RAF Colerne was closed under a programme of UK defence cuts. In June 1976 the aircraft was transferred by road, from Colerne to what was then the Aerospace Museum, at Cosford. It was carried for this trip on the back of a large vehicle of the type known in the RAF and the IAF as a Queen Mary. To meet load-width restrictions on this road trip the wings had to be removed, as a result of which the aircraft lost its flyable status.

The wings have been re-attached for static display, and the aircraft stands at what is now the RAF Museum at Cosford. It has been re-finished in the markings of No 99 Squadron, and of RAF Air Command South East Asia, which it wore during its World War Two service, down to the RAF number it wore at the time, KN 751. However it still carries a small plate on each side of its nose, with the Indian Air Force roundel and ensign, and bearing the words, “Donated by the Indian Air Force to the RAF Museum”.

It is currently the only Liberator on display in the UK (though a former USAF example is currently undergoing restoration for the American Air Museum at Duxford, with a target of going on display in August 2002). It remains an evocative memorial to its American builders and its Indian re-builders, as well as to its RAF, Commonwealth and IAF maintainers and crews.

Contents of this page are copyright © K Sree Kumar.

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