Michigan Aviation Archaeology
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B-24J Liberator #44-8800, Almont, MI - 19 August, 1944


       

Not only is it rare to find a good quality photo of the actual plane that crashed, it is nearly impossible to find in-flight video of that plane.
Above, we have both. The plane that appears first in the video is the plane in question. Towards the end of the video, this plane is being
filmed during a test bomb run (video run-time 7:03 min).
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Crew:  Pilot – Lt. John K. Howmiller, 25, Lansing, IL
          Co-Pilot – Cap. Thomas W. Vaughn, 27, Elyria, OH
          Engineer – Richard Womack (civilian employee, Ford Motor Co.), 35, Dearborn, MI
          Engineer – Harvey D. Jenkins (civilian employee, Ford Motor Co.), 26, Ann Arbor, MI

At 12:27 on the afternoon of 19 August, 1944, B-24J serial # 44-8800 took off from Willow Run Airport on a certification flight. The plane was the 300th plane in the lot and as such was given extra testing to determine the acceptance of the next 300 plane lot. It was the 5,549th Ford built B-24 to come off the assembly line. The plane had not been turned over to the Army Air Forces and was thus the property of Ford Motor Co. It was on its sixth test flight, a high altitude bomb drop, when it crashed in clear weather at approximately 3:40 pm on the farm of Jerry King, about 2 miles ESE of Imlay City, MI. All aboard the plane perished in the accident.

The cause of the crash was later determined to be structural failure of the elevator control surfaces which were found miles away from the crash site in a farm field. This problem was just beginning to become apparent in this model plane and not uncommon during WWII when design changes had to be made on the fly. Indeed, a year earlier on 3 August, 1943, a B-24E crashed near Pueblo, CO under extremely similar circumstances. Recommendations were made to alter the construction to allow for easy visual inspection of these components during pre-flight. It was further determined  not exceed 260 mph dive speeds during test dives, the previous allowable speed was 300 mph.

I have been unable to find additional information on the crew. If you have any information on any of these brave men, please let me know, I would like to give them a more fitting memorial.

Crash site, 1944:




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The search for the crash site:

It was the winter of 2009 when a member of the wreckchasing message board contacted me about this crash site. Dave Trojan, a Michigan native then living in Arizona, was going to be visiting family in the summer and wanted to mix in some wreckchasing along with the visit. Since it was the dead of winter, I was more than happy to help with the research portion (hard to find crash sites buried in snow!) in what we like to call armchair wreckchasing. The plane’s flight originated from Willow Run Airport which is about 5 miles from my house so all the local newspapers were potential sources of information. The plane was built and owned by Ford Motor Co. so I went to the Henry Ford Museum first. Most crash reports, even from WWII, have several pictures with them. The problem is getting quality pictures from the microfilm. In this case, the museum actually had more than 50 high quality photographs, more than any crash report I’ve seen. Since most were of individual parts, I suspect that the plane’s status as a lot certification plane had something to do with the volume of pictures. The town where the plane crashed is an hour away from me but I also found the newspaper article from the local newspaper at the library in Lapeer, MI. With this information, and the report, it was time to begin poring over GoogleEarth images trying to match up possible current locations with aerial photos from the time of the crash, to narrow down a few prospective search locations. Through email correspondence Dave and I narrowed it down to two likely locations, each was still wooded (amazingly enough after all this time) with a good chance of locating pieces of wreckage. Next was a trip to the county records to identify landowner’s information, and a scouting trip to match landmarks with period photographs. I called Dave to let him know that I thought I’d found the likely spot and all we had to do was wait for summer! In the meantime I contacted the property owner who confirmed we had the place and said he’d be happy to let us take a look. He was not alive then but his family owned the farm next door in 1944 and later purchased the property where the wreck was. He had done some limited research and was anxious to see what we had.

June finally arrived, I picked up Dave and a friend of his and we drove to the farm. The farmer took us right to the spot in a low lying wooded area on his property. We were in the woods less than a minute when he picked up the first piece of aircraft aluminum. Wreckchasing is easy when somebody can lead you right to it! We received permission to use a metal detector and dig, the property owner gave us a shovel and left us to it, reminding us to stop by the house on the way out for a drink. The pictures below are all that we found of the wreck. Our GoogleEarth estimated coordinates said we should be looking 500 ft further west of the farmer’s given location so we searched there and found nothing. In the original location we found several larger pieces of aluminum, some molten aluminum, chunks of rubber (possibly from the self sealing gas tank), electrical wire, and tiny pieces of aluminum. We could have stayed for days because the metal detector was registering hit after hit but we decided we had enough information to say we had identified the crash site. I also found out that baby wild turkeys think that metal detectors sound like mom turkeys because during our search, we disturbed a turkey nest and the babies followed us around squawking to the beat of the detector. They are good wreckchasers too (see pic)! We placed the parts in a pile in the woods and left a small flag as a memorial.

On the way out we stopped to talk to the farmer and his wife and shared all of the research we had. He did show us a tree in the front yard and said that local legend had it that one of the engines was buried under that tree but that he had no thoughts about trying to dig it up! We thanked him for his hospitality, exchanged contact information and he gave us some homemade maple syrup. All in all, it was a good day.

Crash site, today:



  

Me placing the flag                                                                                        Is there an engine buried under there?

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 B-24 Liberator

The B-24 Liberator was a heavy bomber, built by Consolidated Aircraft. While it doesn’t receive as much fanfare as the B-17 Flying Fortress, perhaps because of it’s box-like shape that earned it the nickname of “flying boxcar,” it could fly farther and faster with a comparable bomb load.
It was produced in greater numbers than any other American combat aircraft of World War II and still holds the record as the most produced U.S. military aircraft. It was used by many Allied air forces and every U.S. branch of service during the war, attaining a distinguished war record in all theaters of operation in WWII.

 B-24J Liberator Specifications:

  • Four Pratt & Whitney R-1830-65 Twin Wasp fourteen-cylinder air-cooled radial engines with General Electric B-22 turbosuperchargers rated at 1200 hp at 2700 rpm for takeoff and maintaining this power as a military rating up to 31,800 feet.
  • Performance: Maximum speed 300 mph at 30,000 feet, 277 mph at 20,000 feet. Maximum continuous speed 278 mph at 25,000 feet. Usual combat operating speed was 180-215 mph at between 10,000 and 25,000 feet. Initial climb rate 1025 feet per minute. At a takeoff weight of 56,000 pounds, an altitude of 20,000 feet could be reached in 25 minutes. Service ceiling 28,000 feet at 56,000 pound takeoff weight. Range and endurance with a 5000-pound bombload was 1700 miles in 7.3 hours at 25,000 feet (all-up weight of 61,500 pounds) with 2364 US gallons of fuel.
  • Landing speed 95 mph (light)-125 mph (loaded).
  • Weights: 38,000 pounds empty, 56,000 pounds combat, 71,200 pounds maximum overload.
  • Dimensions: Wingspan 110 feet 0 inches, length 64 feet 2 inches, height 18 feet 0 inches, wing area 1048 square feet.
  • Fuel: 2364 US gallons in main tanks, plus 450 gallons in auxiliary wing tanks and 800 gallons in extra tanks fitted in bomb bay if required.
  • Accommodation: Crew was normally ten (pilot, copilot, bombardier, nose gunner, navigator, radio operator, ball turret gunner, two waist gunners, and tail gunner).
  • Armament: Ten 0.50-inch Browning machine guns in nose, upper ventral, and tail turrets and in waist positions. Maximum internal bomb load was 8000 pounds. Two 4000 pound bombs could be carried on external racks, one underneath each inner wing. Maximum short range bomb load was 12,800 pounds (by using underwing racks), but normal offensive load was 5000 pounds.