Feature of the Month, May 2003





Here is one of my round engine favorites.  This is a true accounting of a Ferry flight of a B-24, Liberator across the Atlantic during WWII.  If you can’t find a B-24, use a DC-4 or 6.  Try to fly as Sir Gordon did, encounter his problems I guarantee you will be exhilarated..  Bill Odell, BGAS004


For a pilot, most of the war was just flying – just as for a soldier it was marching. No apology for the length of this account by an Atlantic ferry pilot.  It tells of a long flight.




          My first aircraft was a Liberator.  I met the crew in the briefing room before departure. Johnny Raynor, who also lived at the Pine Beach Hotel, was my first officer.  The others I had never seen before.  Squadron Leader Coristine, the crew assignment officer, had allocated them to my aircraft.  Ed Coristine was one of the world’s great diplomats.  He was responsible for the crew assignments, which, to some types of aircraft, were not all that popular; but I don’t think any one of even the toughest Dorval (Montreal) characters ever questioned an assignment.  One type of aircraft had too short a range of air temperature control and some of these were lost because the carburetors iced up and the engines stopped.  Another had a defect in the exhaust manifold, which sometimes cracked and allowed the flame to come back on the oil tank and set fire to the aircraft.  Still another, a particularly notorious one, was lost in numbers without trace till one exploded in the hanger and a fault was found in the hydraulic accumulator.


          The Liberator, however, was a popular aircraft, which could fly over the weather, was fast, and could easily do Gander to Prestwick non-stop without going to Greenland or Iceland for fuel.  It was always outrageously overloaded, several tons above its designed gross weight.  Furthermore, it had a very fine-sectioned wing, which used to flex in alarming fashion in turbulent air.  It frankly frightened me, and I could not ignore the thought that in very turbulent cloud a wing might fail: in fact several Liberators did disappear at night in bad weather on the South Atlantic crossing.  In San Diego, California, I later met a man who had been intimately concerned with the design of the Liberator wing.  Pinning him down, I explained that I had flown this airplane, very overloaded, and had not been happy to see the wing flex so much in turbulent air; so would he please explain to me just how it stayed on.   He looked at me with a cynical smile and in a soft but significant drawl remarked, “That’s somethin’ Ah’ve ben tryin’ to figure out maself.”


          I wished I had never met the man.


          But I went out of Dorval that morning with Liberator BZ873 on a new adventure.  The weather was overcast with rain, the cloud base at about five hundred feet.  The air was fine and sharp and the light wind had a strange whispering call from the icelands far to the north.  Instead of a warm, coloured islands beckoning from over the horizon of a blue sea there was something entirely new: a strange open clearness; white, untouched and infinitely pure with shimmering lights in the sky, calling from the overcast.  (the Aurora Borealis I would suggest, Bill).


          There was an urgent, eager note in the motors as I ran them up; a quiet confidence in the aircraft as she rolled into the runway to line up for take-off.  But there was tenseness.  Everything always seemed to be stressed to the limit in a screaming cataclysm of sound as this metal monster projected itself down the runway with its occupants committed very soon after it started to roll. 


          A voice from a world I had already left came over the radio from the Dorval Tower:


          “873 – cleared for Takeoff.”


          Cowls flaps closed.  All set to go from the final check.


          I eased the throttles forward and she started to move away; heavily started to roll her twenty-five tons of weight for speed to pass the load from wheels to wing.  I touched her with an outboard motor to check the swing as she thrust blindly for movement in this early stage of the take-off and then gave her the full five thousand horsepower.  She took it, blasting her way with all the thunder of the skies for speed to release her from the earth.


          I rode with the Liberator through this terrific, screaming battle of forces.  There was little for me to do but feel and watch and listen; and be ready for immediate action if she failed for an instant to give all the power she had in the battle with the forces of the earth. I felt the balance of the controls, just letting her go straight down the center of the runway, but ready – till she wanted the nose wheel off the ground


          A quick glance at the power – 2,700 and forty inches.  It was all there.  The engineer’s hand hard against the throttle, turbos set for take-off.


          She tightened down, beginning to feel free.  I glanced at the airspeed indicator, Eighty-five.     Nearly ready for the nose-wheel.  Now my right hand rested on the top of the tail trim wheel.  I felt her fore and aft balance with my left hand on the control column, and stroked the tail-trim back a shade.  There was something definite and satisfactory in the feel of the serrated metal of the trimming wheel, I knew it was going to bring balance and harmony to the whole machine as I eased it back to take the load off the control column, and the nose wheel came away.


          Now the freedom of the air was coming.  She roared with terrific rhythmic sound, lightly on the wheels as the wing took the load, and I saw the end of the runway coming in.  Now it was all in the air.  There could no longer be any compromise with the earth if any of that tight-strung power should fail.  She had to fly. I thought only of the air as she thrust for speed, and I knew it was coming.  At 120 she was away, flying, finished with the earth.  Only the blur of trees came in under the nose.  We set her for the air.  My right hand went up in the air for the engineer.  He rammed forward the undercarriage lever and the wheels began to move up to bury themselves in the wing. Reduce power: to ease that all-out battle of the motors.  I held her down, low over the earth to let her build up speed.  Speed, again; to pass beyond that critical early dragging through the air.  I drew back the throttles till the manifold pressure fell to 45 inches – felt the elevator trim till she was balanced fore and aft at 160, and let her start to climb.


          The engineer signaled the undercarriage locked up, I pulled the power to 42 inches and 2,450 rpm.  At five hundred feet she was brushing the bottom of the cloud. “Flaps up” to the engineer.  She sank for a moment, and needed the tail-trim again.  Then she began to fly. No undercarriage.  No flaps to drag at the wing.  She was running clean and free.  I eased back the throttles to thirty-five inches and the flap of the propeller switches till the rev counters came to 2,300. That would do her. She was not so heavy out of Dorval for Gander.  Johnny’ hand went forward to snick off the booster pump switches.  I watched out to the sweep of the propellers and touched the individual switches till they all spun true and the bleating went out of the engines.  The last of the earth was swept away by cloud as I went on to instruments for the climb.


          At eight thousand feet we broke out through the tops.


          Above, it was bright and clear; clean blue sky without a cloud.  We held on to 9,000 and leveled her off; eased the power to 2,000 and 31 inches, with two inches in the turbos to keep them running; let her cool for a few minutes, then cut the mixture to auto-lean.  She held 65 on the ASI.  I lined her up on course and put her on autopilot.


          Everything was peaceful in this new world.  Overhead the sky was blue.  Away to the north it was faintly green, intensely clear on the cloud horizon.  Johnny Rayner sat with a whimsical grin on his face, listening to the Presque Isle range.  This was new to me, from far away under the cloud I heard a signal coming in, with a touch of background; then Z Q Z the double identification signal.  It amused me only to find that the thing worked.  Down in the Pacific there were no radio ranges at this time; no radio at all for some flights.  Bred of Necessity on the magnetic compass, the drift sight and the sextant.  I had not yet completely discarded my suspicion of all radio ranges to navigation.  The course on the compass was for Gander Airport, Newfoundland; and I expected my navigator to take the aircraft there direct without all this aural contact with earth.  My interest in Presque Isle range signals was academic at this stage, and I didn’t want to listen to them.  I was having a new experience; seeing new air.  The sun was warm over the cloud top, striking into the cabin.  Shafts of light moved slowly and regularly on the instrument panel as the aircraft swayed slightly on the autopilot.  I looked over the oil temperature gauges.  All were normal.  The propellers were spinning with perfect rhythm. There was plenty of fuel.  I was warm, comfortable, and at peace with the world.


          Three hours out we passed over the edge of the cloud shelf and saw below the blue-misted surface of the sea; away to the north the coastline of Anticosti Island under Labrador, and down by the starboard wing tip the Magdelen Islands where Cabot Strait led out to the Atlantic.  Away ahead in the distance the western hills of Newfoundland were hidden under formations of pink cumulus, built by the sun-warmed land.  I held on at nine thousand.  The island came in below, drifting in to the sweep of the starboard propellers: strange that here in the cold gray seas of kelp and granite it would have the form of an atoll; of the dream islands whose names are music in the blue seas of the South Pacific.  Here it is Grindstone Island by Cabot Strait, a cold name; island damp with mists of the Atlantic, strong with the smell of surging seas breaking on dark rocks, close below the cloud.  Today there is sunlight, and to the north the icelands and Nova Scotia out of sight behind the wing.


          My eyes drifted over the engines.  No signs of oil leaks.  Numbers one and two head temperatures at 195 deg. And three and four at 185 deg.. I checked the cowl flap switches.  All were fully closed.  Well they just ran on the cool side.  Oil temperatures all at 72 deg.; pressures seventy nine to eighty one.;  Fuel pressure constant at fifteen.  Everything normal.  I touched the autopilot turn control to keep her on the compass course; called up the navigator for the estimated time of arrival at Gander.  In a few moments he handed up a slip, “ETA Gander 1335.


          The cloud over Newfoundland thickened and lay flat upon the eastward land.


          The radio operator handed me the latest Gander weather: “Wind SE 10; overcast, ceiling 1.800; visibility 8 miles.” Improving.  If it stayed like that we could break through for a comfortable approach.  I put on the earphones, switched on the command receiver and tuned to the range station Stephenville, the US Army Airport on the west coast of Newfoundland.


          I heard the identification signal coming in: Dit-da-da-da-Da. JT, JT.  Equal signals – and then the continuous note of the “on course” signal. A-r-r-r-r-r.  Sounds from some hidden unknown world.  A name; Stephenville.  We were smack on the center of the range leg, still well away from the station.  I switched off the radio, discarded the earphones, and watched ahead over the cloud top.  A dark line approached and spread open below us, again revealing the sea.  Good air below the cloud.  Still plenty of time to break through for contact approach before the land.  I disengaged the autopilot, eased down the power and let her go, down for the sea.


          At 2,500 feet she broke through the base.  The ocean was calm and gray.  Strange to me.  I did not know this sea.  Far in the distance a dark shadow hung under the cloud base; the western hills of Newfoundland.  I picked her up with the throttles to cruising power and trimmed her again for level flight; touched the propeller switches again till the spinning shadows synchronized and a single note rang true from the engines.  Down with earth, she ate into the cold gray air towards the new land.


          I was influenced by two thoughts in attempting this contact flight for Gander.  By working the valleys and avoiding the hills in cloud it might be possible to get in with a lower ceiling than was permissible for a let down on the radio range.  If en route, the cloud shut down to cut out safe visual contact, we could still pour on power and climb back into the cloud, to a safer height, coming in on the final range approach.


          But I really wanted to skate low over Newfoundland; discover this new, dark land, holding the airplane in my hands, and feel the thunder of her engines in the hills, roar over the uplands, and pour her down the valleys.


          As we approached the land, mountain walls rose into the cloud, making and impassable barrier to low flight in sight of the ground.  I turned her away to the north and we slid in where the land fell away, edging in towards the course for Gander base and holding deeper clean air on the port side as a ready way of escape.  The wing spread over a wild land of rolling hills, hard, bare rocks, scrub, and black lakes like holes leading to darkness within the earth.  The air was clean and invigorating and the large aircraft felt responsive in my hands; it was smooth, fast movement, flowing over the land.


          I turned on the radio altimeter. It surprised me by rising and falling accurately with the contour of the land, coming down to meet the approaching hill tops and rising as she flung back the rocks a few feet below the wing and sailed again serenely over a valley.


          I was happy and exhilarated with the sure flight of this Liberator.  Something was fulfilled.  I worked her around towards Gander, checking occasionally from the map, and got within about twenty miles when the cloud shut down.  I saw in the distance merging in the hills; no crack of light; no possible outlet by valley; a thick gray shroud, down before us.


          I called to Johnny for “auto-rich” on the mixture to the carburetor, snapped up the main propeller switch to bring up the revs and give her full power with the throttles.  The motors snarled and blasted the air with thunder as she raised her nose and bored up into the cloud. In a moment this strange new world was gone and I watched the little airplane on the gyro horizon in the instrument panel before me, and trimmed her for the climb.


          I listened for the Gander range signals, checked the identification, and heard a clear N coming in.  That checked our position, west of the airport from the map reading.  The radio compass was out; U/S.  I turned her on to a bisector to cut the southwest leg and hold her up in the climb.


          At four thousand I leveled off for initial approach to the station, and called up Gander control to report our position and request the altimeter setting.


          The signals changed as she started to cut into the range leg.  Behind the da-dit of the N the continuous note of the “on course” signal crept in.  It built up, singing through the earphones as the N faded out.  I let her go on, waiting for the A to come, to prove we had cut through the beam.  A-r-r-r-r dit da-r-r-r dit da—a-r-r-r dit-da. Through the beam.  We had crossed the invisible, audible road to Gander Airport, down somewhere under the cloud.  I turned her on the gyro ninety degrees to the left and listened for her to cut back to the bush, into the road.  Soon the on-course signal started to cover the A.  I turned back to bracket the leg and get her running true towards the station.


          Palmer, the radio operator, handed me the latest Gander weather: “Wind East, 5; overcast, raining; ceiling 400, with broken cloud at 200.”  Bad.  I double-checked the altimeter setting for the sea-level pressure so that it would correctly record our height during the descent; and hold on to pass over the cone of the station.


          The sound built up; shrieked, cut out, and it passed immediately into a clear A over the station.  Invisible below us was the Gander Range station, three miles northeast of the airport.  I signaled “Gear down” to the engineer.  “Rich mixture” to cover later calls for higher power, and turned her away thirty degrees to starboard to pick up the east leg.  Da-dit, da-dit, da-a-a-a-e-e-a-a-dit-da, and we crossed the leg; easing back the power for a rate of descent that would bring us out at the right height on our return over the station.


          Everything was sound.  Two thousand feet over the station; 1,256 minimums over the airport – the conditions laid down for instrument approach. I watched the falling height, the airspeed at 155; and listened.  Twenty-two hundred.  Two minutes to go.  Ease the descent a bit. Da-dit-e-e-e-e-e-e-o-o-o-w-w-uh-h.  The sound suddenly rose, wailed out and a clear N came in.


          Over the station, sixteen degrees to port for the airport leg.  About a minute and a half to the beginning of the southwest runway.  Seven hundred and fifty feet of height to give away to the break through at the minimum.  I called Johnny for twenty degrees of flap to steepen the descent, touched up the propellers t 2,300, let the nose go down, and drew back the power.  She sank on down through the cloud.


          A minute to go.  Round us must be the hills; straight ahead and close below, the invisible airport.  With us there was nothing but the rumble of the motors, the flight instruments, and the sounds in the earphones.  I glanced out an instant, searching for the earth we knew was there.  There was only the dark closeness of the cloud and rain streaming in, tearing harshly at the screen.  There was tight suspense in the invisible closeness of the earth as I held the instruments with my eyes and felt their readings through my hands and feet on the controls.  Forty seconds to go, eighteen hundred feet, no sign of earth.  I let her go down, brought up the rate of descent to go quickly to the minimum, then if there still were nothing I could ease her a shade below it approaching the runway.


          Fourteen, thirteen.  Twelve-fifty.  Twenty seconds. Cloud; no sign of the earth.


          “Standby for the gear.”


          Twelve hundred.  Eleven-fifty.  Eleven.  Nothing.  Blind rain and cloud smoking over the nose.  A climax reached up, rushing in on us.  No future in this.


          “Gear up.”  I pressed forward the throttles and lifted her out.  Get clear of the earth.  The motors hauled her away, up from the invisible hills.  Wait – for the flaps, more height to cover the momentary letdown, Fifteen hundred.  “Flaps up.”  For a moment she was light under me; sank, picked up, and moved away.  I steadied the speed on 160.  The little airplane flew just above the bar on the artificial horizon.  Five hundred feet a minute on the rate of climb.


          “Gander Tower from 879.  Am proceeding to Stephenville.”


          “879 from Gander Tower.  Climb to seven thousand feet on the southeast leg and await instructions”.


          “879; Roger.”


          I followed the instructions from the Gander control and worked her up through the cloud.  I didn’t want to be delayed.  Stephenville would be open for day approach, but uncertain for night.  I wanted to get in as soon as possible.  In a few moments he came back.


          “879 from Gander Tower.  You are cleared to Stephenville.  Weather: calm, overcast; ceiling two thousand; visibility eight miles.”


          “879: Thank you.”


          I pulled her away and straightened up on the course for Stephenville.  In forty minutes I tuned in to the Stephenville range and brought her in over the station.


          I got a signal through to Gander in the morning for Atlantic clearance out of Stephenville.  Walking down to the aircraft I picked up a round, water worn stone by the side of the road.  It was very smooth and cold; hard with long endurance, like the hills and rocks we had flown over.  I could see in it the serene faces of the lakes and the still black ponds, the waters rushing down through hills of pine and birch trees to the strong gray sea.  In the air on the way to Gander my fingers felt the deep texture of the stone in my pocket.  I took it out and tossed it across the cockpit.


          “Catch, Johnny. That’s Newfoundland.”


          We went out of Gander in the evening.  She was tight and heavy, with full Atlantic load.  I held full power as she plunged forward into the darkness off the end of the runway, and took all we had from the motors till she built up some speed.  The weather was down again.  In a few moments even the coal-black darkness of the land was gone and something close and faintly lighter than the night closed around her as she entered the cloud.  There was an impression of a critical situation in the aircraft as she dealt with the heavy load in this blind struggle for the air above.  The world was close before us in the luminous instruments that picked up a blow from fluorescent lights and stared at us securely from the panel.  I was relieved when the wheels were in the wing, the flaps drawn back into the trailing edge and the power was eased from that all-out blasting struggle that left no margin.


          I gave her plenty of speed and power, and watched the flight instruments to keep her closely trimmed, trying to settle her to a steady climb as she hit the uneven air off the cloud.  Outside there was nothing.  Here in the pilots cabin there was a strange security, a warmth of life in the instruments, the rhythmic roar of the motors, and the inhabitants of our world: but there was a tension working for the height before we could feel the easy swinging stride of cruising flight, out with the stars above the cloud.


          We broke through the surface at none thousand feet and held on to eleven-three before again reducing power.  I lined up the autopilot and snapped on the switch as each pair of lights flickered out.  As she settled at eleven thousand on the altimeter the speed held steady at 175 on the ASI.  I trimmed her there, let her go, and sat back to relax and enjoy the flight.


          Now she was set in her own orbit, moving across the universe with the other stars, steady, above the gray mists of space faintly visible below.


          Jack Hood, the engineer, handed up mugs of coffee.  We needed it now, after the strain of taking the overloaded aircraft away from earth and up into the turbulent weather.  I didn’t particularly want to know anything about our position for at least two hours.  There was every kind of aid to navigation on the Atlantic.  And we knew the weather to be good for this crossing.  I wanted the navigator to conserve his energy so that he would be alert in the morning, and give me a reliable, exact position approaching Ireland.


          Palmer, the radioman, handed me a note.


          “We have a passenger.  Sitting on my receiver.”


          I looked back to the radio cabin.  It was a large green grasshopper.


          I called back to Palmer.  “He looks a bit groggy. Try him with a shot of oxygen.”


          We shot him a whiff from an oxygen line and he sat up, looking a good deal better.  He scratched his head with his back leg and appeared very comical, like a horizontal giraffe with front legs in it neck.  Palmer got some lettuce from a sandwich box, and we left him at it.


          We ran through a light warm air front about an hour out and then came out to night so clear and still and black that the aircraft seemed frozen motionless in the heavens.  We got a star position when necessary, kept radio watch, kept the fuel up to her from the bomb bay tanks and continuous watch on the radio compass course, altitude, and engine temperatures and pressures.  I didn’t sleep.  I seldom do in an aircraft, except when traveling in a resigned condition as a passenger.  There is always something.  Something to watch out of the corner of your eye, to think about an decide what you will do before it comes up; and always something new, however small, to take from the air.  When a man reaches the stage when he feels he has learned about all there is to know about the air, when he is simply bored, with nothing to do because everything is going well, it is time for him to stay on the ground.


          About four o’clock in the morning I turned from an awed contemplation of the northern lights and relieved Johnny on the pilots watch.  The first signs of dawn were in the east.  There was only a faint difference in the sky; just enough to give you that new sense of relief that day was coming over.  We had bee silent a long time.


          “It’s cracking, Johnny,” I called across.


          The effect was electrical.


          “What’s cracking?”

          “The dawn, Johnny>”


           We both lay back convulsed with laughter, speculating on the things that could crack in the night over the Atlantic.


          Palmer passed me a message.  We stopped laughing.  “There’s a Fortress in trouble.  He’s lost an engine and he thinks another is packing up.”


          I pulled on the earphones and switched to intercom.  “Get his position and course.”


          What could we do?  Drop him our rubber dinghy perhaps, if he got down and were able to show a light.  We could sty with him for about three hours, till they got a Cat or vessel on the way.


          “He’s sending the SOS.  I can’t contact him.”


          “Keep on trying.”


          “Can’t hear him now.”


          We didn’t hear him anymore.


          Five minutes later I saw a bright light far ahead on the sea.  It looked like flares, burning up and dying.  But it was a ship.  She passed right under us, brilliantly lit from end to end, presumably a hospital ship or a neutral.  Nobody heard the Fortress again.  She didn’t arrive at Prestwick.


          Morning came with a sea of cloud below us.  The stars had been good.  It was still clear above and Craske, the navigator, had the position well fixed.  Soon he would take a final distance out, from the sun.  That would be all we could get from the sky.  There was a big build –up over Ireland and the west of Scotland; with low cloud round the land; soothe final; approach would be a radio job; probably with a letdown on the Prestwick range.  As a further check on our position Palmer had got a radio fix from Iceland and southeast England.  It tallied with the star position.  We were all set for our approach.


          Visibility above the cloud was perfect.  We were only two hundred miles out in the Atlantic now, in the region where it is wise to keep watch for the long range Focke-Wulfe Condors.  I sent back instructions for a watch to be kept out the tail by the two passengers who had the misfortune to travel with us amongst all the military equipment and draughts that whistled in through the gun turret.  It would give them the dubious interest inspired by the possible anticlimax of being shot down while enjoying the morning.


          About seven o’clock I tuned in to 255KC and listened for the Derrynacross Range.  It was there alright; just a faint N in the “on course” signal persisting through a lot of intermittent crackling, and the faraway squeak of the double identification.  The sound of that range was like the lonely cry of a world lost in the depths of the universe.  It seemed infinitely far away; calling in the failing hope that would hear, and come.


          As our reckoning told us that the coast of Ireland would be coming up soon, towers of cloud rose up before us and there were great gaps of smoke-blue darkness below.  Through one of these I saw a wandering white line and suddenly realized that it was the Atlantic surf breaking on the rocky coast of Northern Ireland.  Then there was a bright green field and a patch of red earth; the world; people would be living there.  I immediately it was wiped away; gone, surely only a picture in my imagination, as we drove surging into the cloud and again there was nothing but ourselves, the roar of the motors, and the instruments in the panel before us. She began to bounce around; stabbing into rough air and shaking the springy wing in a way that made her feel uncomfortable to me, too mechanical on the autopilot.  I switched it off and flew her through the weather.  I heard her cut through the north leg of the Derrynacross range, the radio screaming and crackling through the great mountains of cloud and rain that lie over the hills of Northern Ireland.  I made a quick mental estimate of time for Prestwick and called for an ETA from the navigator.  We stabbed on through the cloud, the flexing wing shaking the whole structure of the airplane.  Quite suddenly the whole sky opened up before us and we flew pout into the clean air.  Coming in under the inboard motor I saw the Mull of Kintyre, and down over the starboard nose the great rock of Ailsa Craig showing through a wisp of low cloud.  I eased down on the power and descended to minimum height for safe approach.  As we came in over Prestwick station the cloud broke up completely.  We let down the gear and straight away got clearance into the airport circuit.  We set up for the landing and, descending; she came around facing up for the runway. Flaps down.  She sank in the last hundred feet, dragged through on the engines.  Everything off.  The black surface of the runway rushed under her, the wheels took the load from the wing, and our metal monster came to rest.


                                                                             Sir Gordon Taylor