Two Days in the Life of a B-24 Crew
Take a fantasy flight in a real, live Liberator.
- By Stephen Joiner
- Photographs by Chad Slattery
- Air & Space magazine, July 2011
(Page 3 of 4)
Recoil bruises, intense sunlight, and the umpteenth .50-caliber cartridge jam eventually sap campers’ trigger-happiness. Back in Stockton, the 12-hour day ends with re-enactors reading aloud fake letters from home. “You may return to your billet,” Captain Gaston commands, “and fall unconscious.”
DAY TWO, 7 A.M. Above Witchcraft, an American flag flutters in clear morning light. As Jim Goolsby conducts a walk-through of the B-24, he exudes more tough love than romanticism. Mo Levich inquires about the big bomber’s glide ratio; “A little better than a brick,” he replies bluntly.
Up narrow steps, the flight deck is a museum of war production ergonomics: banks of dials and toggles flanked by handles and levers. Control of the bomber’s large flight surfaces is unassisted by hydraulics. “They’re a little heavier than what you’re used to in a Cessna,” Goolsby tells Levich as we test the action. Rudders have the pedal travel of an elliptical trainer at the gym. Pulling the control wheel back to its limit, you feel every foot of greased cable winding through pulleys and stretching back to the big elevators.
How do today’s pilots relate to Witchcraft’s fly-by-might controls and primitive cockpit environment? “We get jet jockeys in here all the time,” says Goolsby, “and they do a terrible job. We’ve also had people who fly for the airlines train to fly it and they’ll tell you, this ain’t anything like an airliner.”
Re-enactor Sergeant Ken Terpstra, of the Stockton Field museum, has World War II bomber nose art tattooed on his right arm, so I’m not surprised when he says, “I should have been born a long time ago.” A San Joaquin County deputy sheriff, he stands atop the ball turret trainer, psyching up volunteers to squeeze into the metal orb with the plexiglass porthole. Not everyone wants to—or can. After training in basic rotation and target tracking, Terpstra instructs aspirants to signal him in case of sudden claustrophobia and/or vertigo. “I’ll get you out of there quick,” he promises.
Mid-morning lethargy is staved off by loading 220-pound cement bombs into Witchcraft’s bay. Oil must be purged from engine cylinders too. “I’ll do the freakin’ counting for you,” Sergeant Murphy shouts as we manually push the enormous props through a prescribed number of revolutions.
1 p.m. Captain Gaston delivers the briefing. There will be two 80-minute flights, each carrying a six-camper crew. Our target is in a hay field on a private ranch east of Stockton.
Board the B-24 through the bomb bay (unless you’re one of the uninitiated). Inside, Ken Terpstra encourages us to “get the whole experience.” He grants us free rein, only warning us that after the bomb doors open at altitude, we shouldn’t stroll along the 12-inch-wide bomb bay catwalk. (Strike that off the bucket list.)
Four aircraft with a combined age of more than 250 years make a time-tripping lineup on the Stockton taxiway. Vintage Aircraft’s Twin Beech is a camera aircraft (an opportunity to shoot a B-24 dropping bombs and firing machine guns attracts major photog talent), and a Stinson L-5 will scout the target. We can expect opposition, but not—as we’d hoped—the Collings’ Messerschmitt Me 262 (it’s grounded). Instead, Rob Collings will pilot the P-51.
Witchcraft’s takeoff roll seems interminable. But the climbout with all 56 cylinders hammering—that big wing banking in the sun—is glorious. Long before cruising altitude, seat belts click off. One camper is already walking toward the rear gun position. I’m crawling through a duct-like tunnel beneath the cockpit into the nose.
What airplane buff hasn’t imagined how it must have been in the war, perched up front in a glass bubble, plowing through blue sky with the might of a bomber roaring at your back? This flight is just like it was, without the deadly flak. Below, in the bombardier’s compartment, Taigh Ramey lets me peer into the Norden bombsight. The crosshairs drift across a turquoise swimming pool, then a small-town mini-mall. I imagine people looking up.
Over the ranch, reports from a .50-caliber percuss the fuselage. Mo Levich is alternating single shots with staccato bursts—okay, they’re blanks—out the waist-gun port, leaning into the recoil as he tracks a target at 10 o’clock low. Due to mechanical problems, the P-51 has returned to base, so we’re targeting the camera aircraft instead. No aggro Mustang, the docile Beech is easier to track than a clay pigeon.