Fort vs Lib

by Peter G Masefield

The author started a controversy last month in naming the Liberator as superior to the Flying Fortress.

In the January issue Mr Masefield named the Liberator as being slightly superior to the Flying Fortress in the heavy day bomber category. So many readers rose in defense of the Boeing bomber, we cabled him for this clarification of his choice.

When the history of these times comes to be set down, there can be doubt that written large across the chapters of achievement of the many great combat aircraft will be the deeds and daring of the Boeing Flying Fortress and the Consolidated Liberator day bombers. Both have done, and are doing, magnificent work the world over. With the British night bombers — the Lancaster, the Halifax and the Stirling — both will live in history for their great contribution to final victory.

Of the two — the B-17 and the B-24 — which is the outstanding heavy bomber of its day? Such is a difficult, and indeed a delicate, question to be covered in one short answer. Many provisos must be taken into account. Having attempted the "short answer" recently in a selection of what I believe are mathematically and from experience the best aircraft in the world in different specialized categories, some detailed discussion of the reasons for the choice may not be out of place in fairness to the two fine aircraft.

Six months ago there was not the slightest doubt that the B-17F (Fortress) was a superior day bomber to the, then B-24E (Liberator) for all-round operation against a powerfully-defended enemy. The Fortress had proved again and again it amazing defensive power and devastating formation bombing in action over Germany.

But aeronautical development moves quickly. In the past few months designs have progressed. Latest models are the B-17G and the B-24H and B-24J. The Fortress has been developing steadily since July, 1935; the Liberator since December, 1939. Thus it is hardly surprising that the Liberator's turn should come to forge a little way ahead of its magnificent older rival.

Today, with all the newest modifications incorporated in the latest versions of both bombers, my selection after the most careful and detailed analysis — mathematically, operationally, and from a servicing and flying viewpoint — is that the Liberator (the B-24J) is the outstanding day bomber of the world, ahead of the B-17G by the narrowest of margins. That is my belief; just as I am convinced, from what I saw on a recent visit to the United States, that the new Boeing Superfortress (B-29) will prove, when it flies into action, a long way the most formidable heavy bomber ever built.

Thus the pendulum swings. First Boeing is out in front with the B-17 in its successive versions up to the B-17F. Then Consolidated Vultee takes the leading position with the B-24J; and this latter version to in turn to be succeeded in power by the Boeing B-29 — each stage of the progression of both types bearing more hurt and destruction to the enemy. This, after all, is our common objective.

What then are the detail reasons for selection of the latest Liberator as the outstanding day bomber of the present? The mathematical approach balanced by operational experience was described in detail in the January issue of Flying. Set out as a "profit and loss account," the picture looks something like this:

Latest Liberator (B-24J)
  1. Defense: Four power-operated turrets (eight guns) plus three hand-operated guns.
  2. Load and range: A slightly heavier bomb load than the B-17G for a rather longer range.
  3. Speed: A slight advantage over the latest Fortress.
  4. Flying Qualities: Pleasant to fly but not quite so easy to fly in close formation as the Fortress.
  5. Vulnerability: Stands up to damage well, but not quite so extraordinarily as the Fortress.
  6. Maintenance: Excellent.
Latest Fortress (B-17G)
  1. Defense: Three power-operated turrets (six guns) plus five hand-operated guns.
  2. Load and Range: A slightly smaller bomb load than the B-24J for a rather shorter, though adequate, range.
  3. Speed: A few mph less than the latest Liberator.
  4. Flying Qualities: Delightfully easy to fly. Excellent for close formation flying even when operated at great altitudes.
  5. Vulnerability: Exceptional powers of absorption of damage. The best "get-you-home" service in the World.
  6. Maintenance: Very good.

In fact, the long-range hitting-power combined with the deadly turreted armament of the latest Liberator would seem to put it slightly ahead of the rugged excellence of the latest Fortress. The Emerson nose-turret of the Liberator is, in my experience, rather superior to the remotely controlled chin-turret of the B-17G. The top and ball turrets and the waist guns of the two types now match. The Consolidated tail turret of the B-24J has a rather greater field of fire and precision of aim than the hand controlled twin tail guns of the Fort.

Even so, the two are extraordinarily close. What I have said is no reflection on the Fortress. I owe my life to the firepower and the toughness of the B-17G. Had it not been such a great airplane, the Daisy June III would not have brought back its gallant crew and myself from Le Bourget on July 14 last, when, with the nose shot off, oxygen shot out, a wing tip shot up and the stabilizer shot up, it ploughed serenely home again, still in formation, having disposed of two of its more than 60 fighter assailants in no uncertain manner.

The memory of those qualities and delightful hours at its controls have instilled in me an unrivaled affection for the Fort. The "old lady" bows gracefully to her 4½-years-younger rival and yields her pride of place by the narrowest of margins. Meanwhile she looks with great expectations to her glamorous daughter, the B-29, which will carry the name of Boeing to greater achievements than ever before, from the day of her first terrific debut. The Hun and the Jap have much more coming to them from the Consolidated Vultee and Boeing production lines.

This article was originally published in the February, 1944, issue of Flying magazine, vol 34, no 2, pp 49, 168.
The PDF of this article [ PDF, 3.5 MiB ] includes photos of a B-17G seen from 3 o'clock low and of a B-24 seen from 10 o'clock low.
Photos credited to Boeing, Consolidated.