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Feeling Liberated

Fifteen members of Melbourne Bearbrass Probus Club enjoyed a tour of a Liberator bomber restoration at Werribee.

The project involves the bomber with its huge 110ft wingspan, four engines and deep fuselage originally missing its tail. Work has been ongoing for two decades at the one-time wartime airstrip, and the plane is still only half-built.

Worldwide, there are only two flying with eight part-built and five in “bits and pieces” according to hangar guide Paul Rourke, who is secretary of the B24 Liberator Memorial.

Yet in the war years 18,500 were built, mainly at Ford’s Willow Run factory in Michigan with its workforce of 40,000 (90% women) and 36 hectares under one roof. Across all the factories, one plane came off the production line every 59 minutes, round the clock.

The tour highlight was putting in earplugs and watching the restorers start one of the Wasp 1200HP engines on a test-bed outside, erupting in a cloud of blue smoke. Members were warned not to stand in its slipstream – on a previous tour one woman did so to get a good photo and her white cardigan got covered in a mist of black oil.

The guide told the amazing story of how the Werribee bomber survived when all other Australian versions were scrapped by 1953. A Moe citizen, George Toye, bought one derelict leftover (minus wings) and used the fuselage as a caravan at Moe while he built his house.

Eventually trees and scrub grew around the forgotten hulk. The restorers took an option on it and the son of one member happened to discover another B24 in 1990, including wings, that had crash-landed at Ramu strip, PNG.

The Bearbrass party mingled and chatted with the many volunteers with their intricate projects all around the airframe. Some ex-fitters are as old as 90. As it was an Open Day for the public, they were happy to down tools and educate members about the B24s’ engineering and aviation history – the RAAF used 287 of them for long-range bombing and training.

One day this B24 will proudly taxi onto the airstrip, four engines roaring – but it’s never going to take off. A unique morning’s experience.