By RAEANN SLAYBAUGH
The Consolidated PB4Y-2 Privateer based at Arizona’s Casa Grande Municipal Airport (CGZ), believed to be the only one still actively flying, will be a featured attraction at this weekend’s Copperstate Fly-In.
“There’s a Privateer in Greybull, Wyo., that’s currently parked on the ramp,” explains Bruce Brockhagen, spokesperson and volunteer. “There’s another in a Texas museum that’s capable of flight, but it’s parked for now. And, the U.S. Navy has one at its Naval Air Station museum in Pensacola. But, ours is the only one still actively flying, as far as we know.”
So, where did all the Privateers go?
Although 739 were originally built as patrol bombers for the U.S. Navy and U.S. Marines between 1935 and 1962, most were scrapped for metal following World War II and the Korean War. According to Brockhagen, nine were sent to the U.S. Coast Guard in 1945 (including this one). Others went on to operate as fire bombers. In its lifetime, this particular PB4Y-2 had served all three roles.
Introduced during World War II, Privateers are modified Army B-24 Liberators borne of the Navy’s need for land-based planes with longer ranges, particularly for Arctic and other northern wintertime operations.
“The U.S. Navy had amphibious aircraft with limited missions and ranges,” explains Brockhagen. “The PB4Y filled the long-range needs of the Navy for patrol bombers and surveillance flying out of land-based naval facilities, as opposed to flying off aircraft carriers.”
Modifications included a longer nose, plus the addition of top and waist-powered turrets. “The new model was also designed with a single vertical tail in place of the B-24’s twin tails,” Brockhagen points out. “Because Navy patrol missions were flown at lower altitudes, the high-altitude capability of the B-24 wasn’t necessary.” The Liberator’s turbo superchargers were replaced with mechanically supercharged Pratt & Whitney R-1830s. As Brockhagen points out, it is also important to note that while initial PB4Y-2s had a Liberator-type nose turret, most were modified to have an Erco ball turret installed in the nose.
In 1945, nine PB4Ys — including this aircraft — were transferred to the United States Coast Guard. About 15 years later, it was put into aerial tanker service as N2871G (the tail number it still bears today) by an aviation company based in Greybull, Wyo. For fire-bombing purposes, its four motors were replaced with 1,700-hp Curtiss-Wright Cyclone engines. For the next 47 years, it flew as an aerial tanker.
In August 2006, it was auctioned off to a group of private individuals, including Woody Grantham, co-founder of Chandler, Ariz.-based Arizona Air Response. “He is perhaps the greatest contributor to this ongoing project,” Brockhagen says.
The group’s overriding goal was to preserve the history of this venerable warbird and stop it from being turned into scrap metal. Several volunteers, including Brockhagen, committed to lending their time and expertise to “bring the aircraft back and keep it flying.”
Soon after its acquisition, the Privateer underwent a comprehensive inspection, maintenance, repair and conversion effort. The entire process was FAA-approved and conducted by B&G Industries, also based in Greybull, which has extensive experience with this aircraft, as well as a fair amount of spares. Under the supervision of Tim Mikus, B&G’s director of maintenance, the plane’s fire suppression tanks were removed to restore fuselage interior space, and its bomb bay doors were refitted for the first time in more than 50 years.
“The original bomb racks and armament were removed to make way for fire-fighting systems — slurry tanks and the plumbing necessary to ensure efficient fire-retardant distribution once released from the aircraft,” Brockhagen explains. This left a large hole, which necessitated refitting the bomb bay doors, which had the effect of “sealing up” the aircraft.
Removal of the fire systems also made it easier to conduct the FAA-mandated work necessary to return the Privateer to the skies, he points out.
Last October, Grantham flew the Privateer to Casa Grande, where it resides today. Stenciled on the fuselage is Grantham’s name, along with that of co-pilot Bob West, both certified PB4Y pilots from the fire-fighting arena. Crew Chief Robert Kropp, who has a long history in warbird maintenance, rounds out the flight crew.
For now, the Privateer retains its well-known firefighting livery, but decisions remain regarding how to restore it. “Should an effort be made to honor the Navy history?” Brockhagen poses. “Or, should it honor the fire-bomber history? Or maybe its Coast Guard history?” Regardless of its ultimate restoration, plenty of World War II aviation veterans and firefighting pilots can identify the aircraft on sight. “I like hearing them describe their experiences flying this type of aircraft in World War II, and the stories of all who had a part of making history with the Privateer in service to our nation, whether in defense of our country at war or in fighting fires,” Brockhagen says.
In particular, he remembers an 85-year-old U.S. Navy veteran who stopped by at an air show a few years ago. He recounted his experience as a 19-year-old Privateer pilot during World War II. Having been attacked by a Japanese Zero, they descended through the clouds. The Japanese pilot didn’t pursue, believing the aircraft was destined to crash. Instead, under cloud cover, the crew ditched everything it could out of the bomb bay doors. The aircraft made it back to base with only one of its four engines operational.
The Privateer will take to the skies Oct. 20-22 at the 39th annual Copperstate Fly-In & Aviation Expo at the Casa Grande Municipal Airport.