Should rare planes be grounded?

“Liberty Belle crashed just outside of Aurora. Seven out of seven onboard made it out.” This text message greeted me the morning of June 13. Like so many other warbird enthusiasts, I went to the Internet to search for information about the accident. I found video shot from both the ground and the air showing the airplane burning out of control in a cornfield.

According to CNN, the airplane’s number three engine caught fire shortly after takeoff from Aurora Municipal Airport (ARR) outside Chicago. The Liberty Belle had been en route to Indianapolis as part of its seasonal tour when the passengers smelled something acrid, which turned out to be a fire in the engine.

The pilot made an off-airport gear-down landing in a cornfield and everyone made it out of the airplane safely. The airplane was destroyed by fire.

Within 24 hours Ray Fowler, chief pilot of the Tulsa, Okla.-based Liberty Belle Foundation, posted an account of what happened on the organization’s web page: “As all pilots know, there are few emergency situations that are more critical than having an in-flight fire. While it is extremely rare, it can, and sometimes does, indiscriminately affect aircraft of any age or type. In-flight fires have led to the loss of not only aircraft, but often can result in catastrophic loss of life. It requires an immediate action on the flight crew, as the integrity of aircraft structure, systems and critical components are in question. Directly below the B-17 was a farmer’s field and the decision was made to land immediately. Approximately 1 minute and 40 seconds from the radio report of the fire, the B-17 was down safely on the field. Within that 1:40 time frame, the crew shut down and feathered the number two engine, activated the engine’s fire suppression system, lowered the landing gear, and performed an on-speed landing. Bringing the B-17 to a quick stop, the crew and passengers quickly and safely exited the aircraft.”

The Aurora Tower dispatched the fire department. As Fowler noted, at first, it was thought the fire would be extinguished quickly and the damage repaired.

“The crew actually unloaded bags, then had the horrible task of watching the aircraft slowly burn while waiting for the fire trucks to arrive. There were high hopes that the fire would be extinguished quickly and the damage would be repairable. Those hopes were diminished as the fire trucks deemed the field too soft to cross due to the area’s recent rainfall. So while standing by our burning B-17 and watching the fire trucks parked at the field’s edge, they sadly watched the wing fire spread to the aircraft’s fuel cells and, of course, you all have seen the end result.”

Fowler concludes by thanking all the volunteers who help with the tour. “After the investigation and recovery, we will determine our options. We are still committed to the restoration and flying of World War II aircraft. Again, we appreciate the support and people offering to help get us back flying.”

The loss of an airplane is never a good thing, and when it happens to a very rare airplane, the pain is almost physical. You can read about these airplanes. You can see them in museums. But getting aboard one, touching it, smelling it, feeling the vibration of the engines as you crawl through the fuselage as it slices through the air, is a totally different experience. The tactical experience makes the icon more real.

Approximately 12,732 B-17s were produced. Less than a dozen remain airworthy today. There are some people who argue that because these airplanes are so rare, they belong on static display in museums. Indeed, there are some museums that have B-17s in their collections with the explicit understanding that the aircraft will NEVER fly again.

This rarity is why it is such a thrill when the handful of B-17s, about 10, that are still flying travel around the country. The tours are organized and staffed by volunteers and supported by donations. The public is invited to donate a few dollars, then walk through the airplane on the ground. For considerably more, usually about $350 to $450, you can get a ride on the magnificent machines. Usually, the local rides are about 20 minutes. Cheap it is not. But is it worth it?

I had this discussion with a co-worker who was incredulous when the EAA sent him notice that its B-17 “Aluminum Overcast” was going to be in the Seattle area. He could not understand why anyone would spend $400 or more for “just another airplane ride.”

Excuse me? Just an airplane ride? Is the Sistine Chapel just another church? The Magna Carta just another piece of legislation? Were the Beatles just another band?

But I suppose it’s your frame of reference that assigns value to these things, and from that value we get regrets. Among mine is that I didn’t take a ride on “Liberty Belle” when it came through Seattle in April.

I took two of my students to see it at King County International/Boeing Field (BFI). I toyed with the idea of buying rides for all three of us, but the logistics of how long we’d have to wait, not to mention the cost of the jaunt, dissuaded me. Now, of course, I regret that decision.

Instead, when we realized that we didn’t have time to make the flight, we put cash into the donation jar and watched people who ponied up the cash for rides being escorted through the gate in the chain-link fence to the airplane as it was hot-loaded with more passengers. Among the passengers being escorted across the ramp was a gentleman wearing a flight jacket who looked to be of the same vintage as the airplane. He was stooped with age and had people on either side of him helping him. He ambled past another man, who was also wearing a leather flight jacket as he was being led away from the airplane by a young man wearing a nylon flight jacket covered with warbird patches. The second man was grinning ear to ear. He paused to shout something to the man who was boarding the airplane. I couldn’t hear what he said over the sound of the engine, but it made the other man smile. They embraced, then went on their respective ways.

“That’s beautiful,” a woman standing next to me murmured.

I am pretty sure she wasn’t talking about the airplane.

For more information:

Meg Godlewski is GAN’s Staff Reporter and a Master CFI.


  1. says

    Meg; Good article about a tragic event. More tragic would be if this were to cause all vintage/classic aircraft to be put on static display. I am always amused at the amazement that people express the first time they hear a radial engine, and it is that type of experience that should be supported by the caretakers of these machines. There are plenty of aircraft in museums that will never fly again. Leaving the planes on the ground will not keep them 100% safe, just ask the Yankee AirForce here in Michigan about fires.

  2. says

    The mistake is, correct me if I’m wrong, is she was leaking all kinds of fuel, and let’s be honest now, they were taking a calculated risk moving the A/C down to Ind. Is this right?

    I go to the Palm Springs Air Museum, almost yearly, and it is great to inspect these A/C,
    knowing that most of them are in flyable condition. After all mechanical devices need to be used, at least enough to keep them healthy.

    So I say…Yes, fly them that’s what they were meant to do. But with any older machine the utmost in care is mandatory.

  3. Jonathan Davis says

    Sorry to be the one dissenter. The original B-17s and many others are very rare. The few remaining originals should be preserved and duplicated. This was a senseless loss. In my opinion, extraordinary precautions were not invented and followed to prevent it’s loss. Against my spirit, I have to suggest that the last remaining few should be preserved for study and duplication. Couldn’t we fly exact duplicates and still appreciate the reverence of the original warfighters?

  4. Art Ahrens says

    Fine, fly them. Remember tho that they ARE rare, so back off of the aerobatics, bombing runs and formation flying!!! Remember the a** chewing the RAF pilot got in the Battle of Britan movie for doing a victory roll over the airport.

    BTW: we lost another Mustang at Duxford due to sloppy formation flying. When they are gone, they are gone!!

  5. says

    If we were to follow the logic of those that would keep these old warbirds on the ground rather than risk them, it would follow that we should capture and stuff all of the endangered species and put them in museums as well.

    My dad was a B-17 pilot and only just let his medical lapse a couple of years ago. I tried to buy him a seat on Aluminum Overcast but he didn’t want to go for some reason. SO, I used his seat and took some pix when it came to Long Beach.

    I made the shots into a coffee table book for him as a birthday gift. I used a picture of the CAF (Mesa, AZ) B-17 on the cover and included my dad’s class photo and copies of his commission orders out of Santa Ana CA. I didn’t post those online but you can see some of the other pix on the following page of my Website:

    Keep em’ flyin’
    That’s my vote!

  6. Michael Franks says

    I would like to offer a suggestion to those who feel the need to “Ground” rare and historic aircraft; Pony up and purchase all of the rare aircraft that you can afford and then donate them to museums. The “pony up and purchase” part is exactly what the owners and foundations who operate these aircraft have done, not to mention the untold numbers of hours of maintenance, restoration, parts scrounging and fund raising.

  7. says

    I had the privilege of taking a ride on the Liberty Belle when it made a stop at the Davidson County ( NC) Airport ( EXX) several years ago. Two of my fellow passengers were a former B 17 crewman from WW 2 and his son. The old man said the last time he had been on a B 17 he had bailed out over Germany so this flight gave him some closure. Was the cost worth it? Absolutely ! Let’s keep these wonderful aircraft flying.

  8. says

    Beautifully written, Meg. As a true lover of Liberty Belle (I drove a lot of rivets into that machine) as a highly modified classic that was renovated back into her original form, I will miss her. Like you, I never flew on board. But I’ve spent weeks (maybe months) working on her, and I’ll take that memory with me forever.

    What a majestic machine she was.

  9. Ron Clark says

    My father, Major Carl M. Clark (who passed away in ’02 of natural causes at age 84), was the last living B-17 combat pilot still actively flying the plane (alongside an FAA certified B-17 pilot flying with him according to regulations). He was flying the B-17 Nine-O-Nine with The Collings Foundation out of Stow, Mass., and you can see him on the History Channel and Discovery Channel occasionally giving on-screen interviews at various stops on the Collings Wings of Freedom tour speaking about his and other B-17 pilots’ harrowing experiences in the skies over Germany in the European Theater during WWII.

    Collings keeps their B-17 and B-29 in tip top shape with very rigorous mechanical inspections at the end of every year, an extremely expensive undertaking. Their planes stay in absolutely superb operating condition and it would be absurd to suggest planes with this level of mechanical integrity be grounded just because a similar plane went down.

  10. Dennis Reiley says

    Static displays frequently occur when an aircraft becomes unsafe to fly without serious work. Such as is now facing the Shuttle fleet.

    But removing a completely flyable aircraft from flying status simply because it is rare is unconscionable. Eventually some of these rare aircraft will automatically be consigned to static displays because of the cost in keeping them flyable. Aircraft were built to fly. Whether an aircraft remains on flight status is up to the aircraft owner and the FAA. Not the public.

  11. Nick Jones says

    It may be semantics to some people but I would like to set the record straight. Liberty Belle did not crash! It made an extraordinarily good off airport landing and then the plane burned to the ground. Had it not been for the fire that necessitated the off airport landing and the wet field, the plane would be with us today. The credit for all the people walking away without a scratch goes to the skill of the pilot landing in extreme circumstances. There was no crash! I wish the media would get the facts straight before they publish.

  12. Weezie Barendse says

    Liberty Belle made an emergency landing. She did not “crash”. The fire was also behind the #2 left engine.

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