“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: LibertyFoundation.org
Meg Godlewski is GAN’s Staff Reporter and a Master CFI.