April 23, 2024
B-24 Liberator HE-877 as displayed with the Sea Dragon insignia of No.6 IAF Squadron at the Pima Air and Space Museum, Arizona, USA
B-24 Liberator HE-877 as displayed with the Sea Dragon insignia of No.6 IAF Squadron at the Pima Air and Space Museum, Arizona, USA. The aircraft carries the USAF Markings on the other side. Pic Copyright: Wg Cdr K S Vasan (Retd)

The Liberator currently on display at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona, USA, was formerly – and on one side, is still finished as – HE-877 “A” of the Indian Air Force. It was built by the Convair plant at Fort Worth, Texas, one of five factories making up the Liberator Production Pool. This plant is now the Fort Worth division of General Dynamics, which manufactures F-16s.

It was built in 1944, being completed on 7 September that year, and was allocated to the RAF under the Lend-Lease programme. It assumed the RAF serial KH 304. It was ferried to the UK in November 1944, and onward to India, arriving in Jodhpur in December. It served initially with 354 Squadron, based at Cuttack, until May 1945. It was then transferred as a reserve aircraft to 203 Squadron, based in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) but with a detachment at St Thomas’ Mount, Madras. It is likely to have played an active role in the Burma Campaign, as both 354 and 203 Squadrons were intensively committed, on coastal patrols, shipping attacks, supply drops and POW repatriation.

After the war, like other Liberators in the theatre, KH 304 was delivered to 322 Maintenance Unit, Kanpur, for storage and disposal. As described in 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. KH 304 was officially struck-off RAF charge on 11 April 1946.

The aircraft was refurbished and restored to flying condition by the Indian Air Force and HAL. It assumed the IAF serial HE-877 and the identification letter “A”. Some sources suggest it was restored in 1949; if so it probably served with No 5 Squadron of the IAF, as this was the IAF’s only Liberator operating unit in that year. However, like most Indian B-24 survivors, HE-877 was with No 6 Squadron, the specialist Maritime Reconnaissance squadron of the Indian Air Force and the world’s last mainstream operator of the B-24 Liberator, in 1968.

Click to Enlarge HE-877 is in an immaculate condition as can be seen in this picture. The aircraft had undergone three different US marking schemes on the other side. On the starboard side however the aircraft is displayed in its IAF scheme. Pic Copyright: Wg Cdr K S Vasan (Retd)
The Hangar display had made it very difficult to capture the aircraft’s IAF Markings in one shot. But nevertheless Wg Cdr Vasan, our contributor had done a great job with this shot..almost capturing the whole aircraft in one frame. Pic Copyright: Wg Cdr K S Vasan (Retd) Click to Enlarge

During its IAF service this aircraft, like all IAF Liberators, would have flown in a natural metal finish, wearing IAF roundels and fin flash, and sporting her squadron badge on her nose. It would have spent the bulk of its IAF service based in Pune. While with No 6 Squadron, it may have been fitted with a rudimentary ASV radar set, for its MR role.

This aircraft was one of the more intensively-used Indian B-24s, accumulating the enormous total of 39,000 hours’ flying time in IAF service. This figure does not include its time in RAF service. In particular, HE-877 provided photographic survey support to the first successful conquest of Everest, by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, in 1953. Several of the spectacular publicity photographs of Mount Everest released to media at that time were taken by this aircraft.

The Pima museum’s acquisition of this example began in late 1967 when Rhodes F Arnold, chairman of the Acquisition Committee of what was then the Tucson Air Museum Foundation and a USAF Reserve Lieutenant-Colonel, wrote to the CAS of the Indian Air Force, asking for the donation of a retiring Liberator. The IAF agreed readily, but as with other aircraft donations, asked the recipient to meet the cost of ferrying the aircraft to its new home. Lt Col Arnold summed this up in the phrase, “B-24 free; ferry $12,000”.

Click to Enlarge This angle shows the waist and belly Gun positions. One of the Liberator’s engines found its way to Kermit Week’s Delectable Doris, another Ex-IAF Liberator in the US. Pic Copyright: Wg Cdr K S Vasan (Retd)

Although benefiting from some US government and US Air Force support, the Tucson Air Museum was not the “official” USAF museum, and at this time did not even have its own premises. Funding for the ferry flight had to be raised through donations and sponsorships. Sponsorships came from Shell, which covered all POL expenses for the trip, General Dynamics (formerly Convair, who had built this aircraft), Pratt & Whitney (who had built the engines), and Honeywell (who had built the supercharger regulators). Pledges of maintenance and communications support for the flight came from the airlines Pan Am and TWA.

A volunteer USAF crew of five men, led by Lieutenant-Colonel (later Major General) LeRoy W “Swede” Svendsen (who coincidentally had previously commanded the USAF’s own 6th Squadron), and accompanied by Lt Col Arnold, arrived in India in March 1969, to ferry the aircraft to the US. Like the Canadian Forces crew which had arrived to collect another IAF-donated Liberator ten months earlier (see HE-773), this was a volunteer crew, with no Liberator experience – except the flight engineer, Master Sergeant Robert K Kent, who had logged a relatively small amount of flying time on Liberators 25 years earlier. In fact, both Lt Col Svendsen and his co-pilot Major James J Boggs were primarily fighter pilots.

However, the USAF crew set with a will to conversion training with No 6 Squadron IAF in Pune; and the collective experience and enthusiasm of instructors and pupils, by all accounts, came together nicely. The lead instructor was once again Squadron-Leader Y S Marwah of No 6 Squadron, IAF, who had also previously converted the Canadian crew.

While the USAF crew was undergoing their conversion training, HE-877 was given a US civil registration and a US flag on its tail. In addition its turret guns were removed, bagged and secured in the bomb-bay; and its IAF markings removed. This would turn out to be providential, quite early into the ferry flight.

On 28 March 1969 HE-877 left Pune, carrying both Indian and US crews, on a trial navigation flight to Bombay. FAA certification, which was required to allow it to fly into US airspace, was provided by an FAA-authorised Indian employee of TWA in Bombay. Sqn Ldr Marwah then formally handed the aircraft over to Lt Col Svendsen.

The first leg of HE-877’s ferry flight was to Karachi, Pakistan. As it happened, Gen Yahya Khan had deposed Field Marshal Ayub Khan, and declared martial law in Pakistan, just three days earlier. Flying an aircraft that probably still figured in PAF recognition charts as an Indian Air Force type, at this politically somewhat nervous time, the Americans were intercepted by PAF F-86 Sabres as they approached Karachi. They experienced a few hairy moments, until the Pakistani pilots and civil aviation authorities accepted the aircraft’s identity and flight-plan.

HE-877 suffered a stuck exhaust valve in Karachi; but a team of mechanics that Lt Col Arnold described as “a genuine ecumenical council” (consisting of the US crew’s Protestant flight engineer, a Goan Catholic, a Pakistani Muslim and a Jewish USAF sergeant) rectified the problem. HE-877’s next stage was to Mehrabad airport in Tehran, where the crew spent three days waiting for weather over Turkey to abate. Their next stage, to Athens, was routed over the mountains of Iran and Turkey because they had been unable to secure passage over Iraq. The Tehran-Athens leg eventually required 4½ hours at 14,000 feet without cabin heating – the IAF, remember, had done most of its Liberator flying at 500 feet over tropical seas. The crew endured temperatures down to -8 degrees F. They landed at Ankara for an hour and a half partly to thaw out, and flew on to Athens the same day. They staged on through Naples, to Torrejon AFB near Madrid, where they spent ten days having a bomb-bay fuel tank installed. The additional fuel capacity enabled the aircraft to take a more southerly (and therefore warmer) trans-Atlantic route than the Canadian crew had taken: via the Azores, to the US Navy air station in Newfoundland, a 10½ hour over-water leg. Their next attempted leg was cut short by weather, and they had to land unplanned at a small airstrip in Forestville, Quebec, where the aircraft experienced possibly its first-ever touch of snow. The weather cleared next day; Canadian volunteers and Mounted Police helped remove the snow and apply alcohol to the control surfaces; and HE-877 departed for the United States, landing briefly at National Airport in Washington, DC and then flying on to Fort Worth, Texas, her original birthplace.

The aircraft and crew were received at Fort Worth by the president of Convair and by television and other media crews, and spent six days there. For an interesting contrast the Liberator was parked on the Convair ramp next to a contemporary product of the plant, a swing-wing F-111.

On 27 April 1969, HE-877 flew its last flight, to Tucson, Arizona. It landed at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, where it was received by a gathering which included General James H Doolittle (of Tokyo raid fame), the mayor of Tucson, a number of serving USAF generals, and the Air Attache from the Indian Embassy, Air Commodore MD Khanna. The ferry flight had covered 11,000 miles in 75 flying hours.

The aircraft still stands in Tucson today. It served temporarily as gate-guardian at Davis-Monthan AFB; but became one of the star attractions of the adjoining museum, now known as the Pima Air and Space Museum, on its opening in 1972. It has re-acquired IAF markings on its starboard side, including its old IAF registration number and the Flying Dragons badge of No 6 Squadron. The livery and artwork on the port side have changed a few times since it went on display. For the ferry from India it was christened Pima Paisano, with a road-runner for nose-art. Later it was re-painted to represent Shoot You’re Covered, a B-24 originally of the USAAF’s 9th Bomb Squadron, 7th Bomb Group, based in India during World War Two. Currently (as of April 2002) it bears nose-art and the name Bungay Buckaroo.

As with all former Indian Air Force Liberator survivors, the very existence of this aircraft, nearly sixty years after it was first built, is a considerable tribute to its American builders. The quality of care and devotion evident in its current display are another tribute, to the thousands of Americans who flew and serviced this and similar types during World War Two. And with Indian Air Force markings on one side, this example has for over thirty years stood as a particular tribute, thousands of miles away from India, to its post-war Indian re-builders and operators. It is hard to imagine a more honourable career, or a better-deserved retirement!

Text Contents of this page are copyright © K Sree Kumar.
Photo Contents of this page are copyright © Wg Cdr K S Vasan (Retd)

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