Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The First Liberator

Today's photo starts a new series of press-release wirephotos which originally came from the St. Petersburg Times and which were recently acquired by MojaveWest. For those unfamiliar with wirephotos, they were essentially faxes, with the technology having been developed in the 1920s and 1930s (a fascinating article from Popular Science in 1935 about the technology can be found here). The amazing thing about wirephotos is that they were able to produce high-quality photo prints transmitted across old-fashioned telephone lines, decades before fax machines became popular - and the typical fax quality doesn't even come close to the image clarity that wirephotos have, as you can see here.

This is a tale about what happens when someone has a better idea than what was proposed, and doesn’t give up when that idea fails to meet expectations the first time around; it’s a story which demonstrates that a superior idea will win out in the end, and really can exceed the original expectations. It's also a demonstration that you can't always trust media releases to be accurate. But, since we're telling the stories behind the photos, let's at least look at the photo first:

The official caption accompanying this wonderful old image reads, "ARMY'S NEW SUPER BOMBER TESTED
SAN DIEGO, CAL. - The Army Air Corps' new bombardment plane, technically known as the XB-24, pictured after completing initial test flights at Lindbergh Field, San Diego. The four-motored plane, of all-metal construction, is capable of a speed of 300 miles an hour and a range of approximately 3,000 miles and a bomb carrying capacity of approximately 4 tons. It has high wings with a span of 110 feet. The motors are 18 cylinder, twin row radials, air-cooled. The propellers are three-bladed and 12 feet in diameter. A crew of six to nine men will fly the ship, which was built by the Consolidated Aircraft Corporation. Credit line (ACME) 2/12/40."

Dittoed caption pasted to the back
Not so fast! The numbers touted to the public weren't even close. That's where the "fails the first time" aspect of our moral comes in, and to understand that, we need to look at the "better idea" part. In 1938, the Army Air Corps needed more B-17 Flying Fortresses, and they needed them faster, so they approached company officials at Consolidated Aircraft in San Diego, to inquire about the ability of that company to crank out B-17s under license. But the Consolidated folks decided that they could do the Army one better, and offer a bigger, faster and longer reach bomber for the same effort - a belief which resulted in the Model 32, designed around twin bomb bays, each one having the capacity of a B-17. Intrigued, the Air Corps issued a set of specifications in January 1939, designed so that the Model 32 - redesignated the XB-24 - would be an automatic winner, and then invited Consolidated to submit a design. It was from this specification that the numbers in the press release text quoted above were derived.

After its first flight on December 29, 1939, it became apparent that the XB-24 fell quite short of the goals. Rather than the specified 311mph, the plane could, full bore, eek out a mere 273mph top speed. There were other issues, as well. The aircraft was redesigned with different engines and a slightly changed tail, and re-christened the XB-24B, with a bit more success. Even so, the top speed never met the specs...being listed for production aircraft at 290mph. Instead of a 3,000 mile range, it could only go 2,100 miles, and that only when empty. When loaded with the four tons of bombs that the press release touted, its range was a measly 400 miles!

Even so, it was considered one of the most successful aircraft designs of the war, and 18,482 aircraft were produced (compared to only 12,731 B-17s). At peak production, B-24s were pumped out at a rate of one aircraft per hour!

In 1944, the now-XB-24B was modified to be used by Consolidated as a VIP transport, an assignment which didn't last long. On June 20, 1946, this historic aircraft was unceremoniously scrapped at Brookley Field, in Mobile, Alabama.

No comments:

Post a Comment