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Pratt & Whitney Engines on B-24 as Dependable Now as They Were 70 Years Ago

Friday, September 20, 2013

It was loud. It was cold. It was uncomfortable. But to Russell Jones, it was beautiful.

There are many memories that Jones, a World War II veteran, has of the heavy bomber Consolidated B-24 Liberator airplane, but one thing seems to stick out.

"The Pratt & Whitney engines were damn good," the former tail gunner recalled with a confident laugh. "They kept us going all the time."

Jones flew 50 missions during the Second World War. As he sits in the shadow of the last flying Liberator at Orange Municipal Airport in Orange, Mass., he speaks about the antiquated bomber like it's an old friend.

"It was reliable, it was steady, and it would take a lot of punishment. We would go faster than the B-17, so we'd have to throttle back to stay with them if they were supposed to be with us," Jones said with a reminiscent chuckle.

The B-24 was visiting Orange thanks to the Collings Foundation, a non-profit organization founded in 1979 that is dedicated to the preservation of WWII aircraft. This particular B-24, nick-named "Witchcraft," makes stops across the country, dependably powered by four Pratt & Whitney R-1830 engines.

"They were built to run, they were cruise engines," said pilot Jim Harley, who's been with the foundation for 10 years. "It was brilliant. These engines were designed 30 years after the Wright brothers flew, so that kind of puts it in context."

The R-1830 engine, known as the "Twin Wasp," was introduced in 1932 and was the first twin-row design for Pratt & Whitney, delivering up to 1,350 horsepower. The engine was used in a variety of aircraft, and thousands were installed into the B-24 platform.

Decades later, when the restoration efforts began, finding the right parts to restore the Twin Wasps was made easier because of the more than 170,000 engines were built. "Witchcraft's" restoration was completed in 1989.

"I love Pratt & Whitney engines," Harley said, standing outside his aircraft as dozens of school children toured the old plane. "They don't quit running, they just keep running. It's amazing technology for being 70 years old, so nothing but kudos for Pratt. No one can argue that they're just great engines."

The four super-charged and turbo-charged engines are kept on a progressive maintenance program, with inspections and work done after 25, 50, 70, and 100 flight hours. But Harley says there have never been any significant problems, and basically the plane is "turn-key" ready for their annual "Wings of Freedom" national tour. The B-24 is currently travelling to a variety of airports across New England.

"It is noisy. I like to describe it as standing in a tin shed in a hailstorm. But most people want to hear that noise anyway; they want to hear what these crews listened to during their missions. They were in these airplanes for 10 hours, it was pretty brutal," said Harley, who wears noise-cancelling headsets when he flies.

Brutal … but beautiful. Harley has a clear understanding how lucky he is to be flying a piece of living American history.

The joy of his job is sharing stories, and learning new ones from those who spent countless hours inside the bomber. It's worth asking Jones about one of his favorite anecdotes.

The crew had left Brazil and was cruising at 8,000 feet en route to Africa. Halfway into their mission, the co-pilot wanted to stand up and stretch his legs. It would be a decision that would almost cost Russell, and his crew, their lives.

"So he reaches up to get out of the seat, and accidentally feathered off all four engines," Jones said with a surprisingly hearty laugh. He continued that the pilot didn't know what had happened at first, and the B-24 was falling out of the sky like a stone. In the end, the Twin Wasp engines lived up to the "Dependable Engines" slogan, and came to life just in time.

"Boy, did we have to do some fast starting to get all four of those things going again. We ended up about 80 feet over the ocean before we got all four going again," Jones recalled.

Loud. Cold. Uncomfortable. Harley and Jones wouldn't want it any other way – it gives the B-24 character.

"It's an honor. It's much akin to flying a bathtub half-full with water. It's ungainly, but it's a great airplane, and the engines run like a Swiss watch," Harley said.

Jones agreed.

"Those Pratt & Whitney engines pulled us through. They kept us in great shape."

For more information about the "Wings of Freedom" tour, you can visit the Collings Foundation website at collingsfoundation.org.

Photo Captions:

Photos 1-5: The last flying B-24 bomber, known as "Witchcraft," sits on the tarmac at Orange Municipal Airport in Orange, Mass. Pratt & Whitney's storied Twin Wasp engine powers the B-24.

Photo 6: Collings Foundation pilot Jim Harley stands in front of the B-24.

Photo 7: Russell Jones, a former tail-gunner on the B-24, is pictured with his wife, Arlene. They live in Chicopee, Mass., and have been married 62 years.

Photo 8: Russell Jones served in World War II.