The B-17 Flying Fortress Liberty Belle, known for traveling around the country attending air shows and giving people the experience of riding in a World War II bomber, has abruptly ended its tour of duty. An apparent in-flight fire forced the pilots to bring the airplane down in a cornfield near the Aurora Municipal Airport (ARR) just west of Chicago, only four minutes after its 9:30 a.m. departure on June 13, according to FAA Public Affairs officer Elizabeth Isham Cory. The quick reaction of the pilots — Captain John Hess in the left seat and Bud Sittic in the right, both with more than 14,000 hours of flight experience — allowed the seven occupants of the airplane to walk away. There was only one minor injury reported as a result of the forced landing.
Over the weekend, the B-17 underwent some maintenance, but Keith Holloway from the NTSB office in Chicago said it is too early in the investigation process to make any determinations about the cause of the accident. The agency has examined the airplane and is in the process of relocating the remains to continue its investigation.
A statement from Liberty Belle’s chief pilot Ray Fowler claimed the airplane could have been saved after its successful forced landing. The airplane suffered no damage as a result of the forced landing, but firefighters were unable to drive their fire trucks onto the wet field to apply fire suppressant to the burning airframe. The fire spread and eventually consumed most of the fuselage and a significant portion of the wings of the four-engine Flying Fortress.
Fowler’s statement also said the crew and passengers detected an “acrid smell,” which prompted the pilots to turn the airplane back toward the airport. But Cullen Underwood, a pilot flying a T-6 Texan as a support ship in formation with the bomber, reported flames coming from the left wing of the Liberty Belle. Cullen’s urgent radio call convinced the pilots to land immediately in the cornfield.
Fowler also directly addressed the positive safety record of the Liberty Belle, which has flown more than 20,000 passengers since it began its tour around the country in 2004. And he claims that hundreds of thousands of people have taken safe rides in the B-17s that have toured the world during the past 20 years. The crew and volunteers that occupied the airplane were bringing the Liberty Belle to Indianapolis, Indiana, to continue the tour.
According to the Liberty Foundation, fewer than 15 of the 12,732 B-17 Flying Fortresses built between 1935 and 1945 are still flying.