There was the inevitable sigh of relief each time the lumbering warbird — with its slab-sided fuselage and distinctive twin tail — touched down again after returning from combat in the European Theater.
Crandell flew 35 missions as a bombardier with the U.S. Army Air Corps, including one ill-fated outing during which he and his crew mates had to ditch their crippled B-24 into the Adriatic Sea.
But Crandell, well known as “Mr. Santa Barbara” for his decades as a businessman and philanthropist, shows no trepidation as he prepares to once again climb aboard a B-24 next week at the Santa Barbara Airport.
“I think they’re probably the safest aircraft around,” Crandell said during an interview at his Montecito home.
It will be the first time since the war that Crandell, 91, has flown in the four-engine bomber that was dubbed the “Liberator,” and remains the most-produced military plane in U.S. history, with more than 18,000 built.
The B-24 was designed to be faster and lighter, and able to fly farther, than other bombers of its time, but also was thought to be more difficult to fly than the B-17.
Crews considered it more vulnerable to battle damage, and worried about its propensity to catch fire due to the placement of the fuel tanks.
Crandell, who grew up in Trenton, N.J., was just 19 in 1943 when, like so many of the “Greatest Generation,” he answered the call of duty, and volunteered to fight in World War II.
After training at bases on the West Coast and in Colorado, Crandell became part of a 10-man crew based in Southern Italy: 756th Squadron, 459th Bomb Group, 15th Air Force.
During combat missions, it was Crandell’s job to guide the load of 500-pound bombs to their designated targets.
The role of bombardier, which required squeezing into a glass turret below the B-24’s nose, was no easy feat for Crandell, who stood 6-foot-2.
“I was about at the limit, size-wise, for that job,” he said.
Missions typically were long — seven to eight hours — as the Liberators headed for Germany and Austria to hit their targets — rail stations, munitions factories and the like.
Comfort definitely was not a strong point for the B-24, Crandell recalled, noting that the aircraft was not pressurized, and oxygen was required above 10,000 feet.
Because outside temperatures would drop below zero at the cruising altitude of 20,000 feet, crew members were outfitted with electric heated flying suits, Crandell said, describing them as “inadequate.”
Crandell’s tool of the trade was the Norden bombsight, a bulky device that was hand carried aboard the aircraft prior to each mission.
The bombsight, which tied in to the plane’s control system, was designed to allow the bombardier to accurately deliver the bombs to their targets.
As the plane approached the drop zone, one of Crandell’s jobs was to crawl out a narrow catwalk into the bomb bay and remove the cotter pins securing each bomb.
Once or twice, he also had to return to the bomb bay when a bomb got stuck and did not deploy.
“There was a place you could bang, and if you were lucky, the bomb would drop out,” he said.
It was on Crandell’s 21st mission that fate nearly caught up with him, as the crew was returning from a bombing run to Vienna with two of its engines shot out.
“The B-24, unlike the B-17s, flew badly on two engines,” Crandell noted, and the pilot eventually decided to ditch the aircraft in the Adriatic Sea.
With the crew braced for a hard touchdown, the plane smacked into the water’s surface.
“It turns out — and I would have died of fright had I known — they estimated we hit the water at 100 mph, and it knocked me end over end,” he said. “When I came to, my head was under water and I thought, ‘Gee, I’m a pretty good swimmer, it would be odd if I drowned.’”
Crandell was quickly able to get his head above water, and the entire crew escaped from the B-24, an airplane that was known for sinking quickly after being ditched.
They jumped into a couple of dinghies, and were picked up a few hours later by Italian fishing boats, then trucked to an Army hospital.
Crandell took a blow to the head when the plane ditched, and the resulting wound, which required several stitches, earned him a commendation.
“They woke me up at 1:30 in the morning at the hospital to give me the Purple Heart,” Crandell said. “I didn’t realize until then how much they liked to give out medals because of the effect it had back home.”
While Crandell readily acknowledges the dangers he faced as a young airman — and the casualties suffered by his bomb group — time has softened his view of that period of his life.
“I have a million memories (from his war years), so they are right with me,” said Crandell, who finished the war as a first lieutenant. “It’s become a totally positive memory.”
Ground tours will be available from 2 to 5 p.m. Monday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, and 9 a.m. to noon Wednesday. Cost is $12 for adults and $6 for children under 12.
World War II veterans can tour without charge.
Flights aboard the aircraft also available for a fee, which supports the efforts of the nonprofit Collings Foundation.
A 30-minute flight aboard the B-17 or B-24 is $450. Flights in the P-51 are $2,200 for 30 minutes or $3,200 for an hour.
Reservations and information on flight experiences are available by calling 800.568.8924.
Click here fore information about the Collings Foundation and the Wings of Freedom Tour.