When is a B-24 Not a B-24? When it is a PB4Y-2, Of Course!

The Consolidated PB4Y-2 Privateer is a World War II and Korean War era US Navy patrol bomber that evolved from the Consolidated B-24 Liberator. The Navy used unmodified B-24s as the PB4Y-1 Liberator. Although successful, the Navy wanted a fully navalized design, and Consolidated, beginning with the B-24 aircraft, developed a dedicated long-range patrol bomber designated PB4Y-2 Privateer.

Conslidated PB4Y-2 Privateer Patrol Bomber

Ford Motor Company, building B-24s under contract, demonstrated that a tall, single vertical stabilizer and rudder improved aircraft handling. The result was a basic B-24 aircraft with the single vertical stabilizer. It was also stretched seven feet longer to accommodate a terrain mapping radar and radar operator station. Defensive armament was increased to 12 M2 Browning machine guns in six turrets (two dorsal, two waist, nose, and tail). The B-24’s ventral, retractable ball turret was omitted. The Navy also selected non-supercharged Pratt and Whitney R1830 engines (1350 hp) that were more efficient at lower patrol altitudes.

Figure 1 The Consolidated B-24 Airframe that was modified to produce the PB4Y-2.

Delivery began in 1944—in time for several squadrons to see service toward the end of WWII. The aircraft performed reconnaissance, search and rescue, and anti-shipping roles. Anti-shipping missions often used the BAT radar guided glide bomb. The Navy eventually took delivery of 739 Privateers; the majority were delivered after the end of the war.

A Consolidated B-24 Liberator from Maxwell Field, Alabama, four engine pilot school, glistens in the sun as it makes a turn at high altitude in the clouds. Heavy Bombers

Operational history

The Privateer entered Navy service during late 1944 and the operational flights began in early March 1945, flying sectored anti-shipping searches out of the Philippines. The surrender of Japan in mid-1945 temporarily halted the operational flights of the PB4Y-2. They would later be used during the Korean War to drop parachute illumination flares to detect North Korean and Chinese infiltrators from the sea.

PB4Y-2 at the Naval Aviation Museum, Pensacola, Florida

The Navy also used the Privateer for signals intelligence (SIGINT) off the coasts of China and Russia during the early days of the Cold War. Designated P4Y-2 aircraft—indicating they were no longer bomber capable—a P4Y-2 was shot down in April 1950 over the Baltic Sea by Soviet fighters. Privateers also saw service as typhoon hunters through the mid-1950s. One typhoon hunter had mechanical troubles and tried to land on the island of Bataan, but crashed. A few retired aircraft, were used as drones and re-designated QP-4B.

Except for a few Coast Guard aircraft and aircraft supplied to the Republic of China, US Navy PB4Y-2 aircraft were out of service and retired by 1954

Life After the Military

I was introduced to the former Navy Patrol Bomber PB4Y-2 at the Museum of Flight and Aerial Firefighting in Greybull, Wyoming.

As the Privateers were phased out of military service in the 1950s, many were purchased by aerial fire-fighting companies. The guns and military equipment had been removed and tanks were installed to carry fire retardant to fight forest fires.

In 1970, Hawkins and Powers, an aerial firefighting company in Greybull, Wyoming replaced the lower powered Pratt & Whitney engines with Wright 1700 hp R2600s (taken from surplus B-25 bombers). The R2600s were more readily available and easier to maintain. Although rated at an additional 350 hp, the engines could not be operated at full power because the Privateer was limited to is original horsepower rating. The fact that the engines could be operated at lower power settings also prolonged the life of the engines.

The firefighting exploits of the PB4Y-2/P4Y-2, along with several other aircraft, are being preserved at the Museum of Flight and Aerial Firefighting in Greybull, Wyoming. We happened on the museum as we were traveling from Yellowstone National Park along US 20, approaching Greybull, Wyoming. (Note: “PB4Y-2” was the designation for the original “patrol bomber.” When the aircraft were stripped of weapons and bombing capability, they were re-designated as “P4Y-2.” These aircraft were originally designated PB4Y-2.)

Figure 2 P4Y-2, Firefighter 126, on the Flight Line of the Aerial Firefighting Museum

Here, visitors have direct access to several different fire-fighting aircraft, including the interiors and cockpits. There are two modified Privateers on display—numbers 126 and 127. Stripped of all weaponry and any non-essential equipment, the interiors are truly spartan. The fire-retardant tanks are mounted below the main floor.

P4Y-2 Firefighter 126 in Action

In addition to fire retardant tanks and new engines, the original cockpit canopies were replaced with a one-piece canopy for better visibility in the smoky, crowded firefighting environment. As fire-fighting aircraft, the P4Y-2 carried 2,400 gallons of fire retardant in four tanks. All four tanks could be emptied simultaneously to hit hot spots, or in sequence to create an extended fire line.

P4Y-2 Firefighter 123 on the Greybull Flightline During Firefighting Season. This aircraft and its crew were lost in 2002

Many Privateers served as aerial firefighters over a period of 43 years. Their use ended abruptly in 2002 when several crashes led to the retirement of all WWII aircraft from Federal firefighting. P4Y-2 number 123, operated by Hawkins and Powers Aviation broke up in flight while fighting a wildfire. Both crew members were killed in the accident. Following the accident, the FAA grounded all remaining Privateers. There is a monument memorializing the crew on the museum’s flight line.

Memorial to two Firefighting Aircraft and Crews lost in 2002. T123 was the P4Y-2 shown above.

At last report, there are three Privateer aircraft still airworthy—one each in Greybull, Wyoming; Chino California; and Phoenix Arizona. Four others are listed as on display at: Lone Star Flight Museum, Galveston, Texas; Yankee Air Force in Belleville, Michigan; the National World War II Museum, New Orleans (nose only); and the National Naval Air Museum, Pensacola, Florida. (Note: I visited the Naval Air Museum within the past two years and did not see this aircraft. Also, a search on the museum’s site does not include the aircraft in their collection.) There are also the two on display at the Museum of Aviation and Aerial Firefighting, Greybull, Wyoming.

Number P4Y-2 Number 127, a Sister Ship to 126. Note the Bubble Canopy and different Nose Configuration from 126.