Monday, June 13, 2011, will remain a sad day for the warbird community. A vintage warrior made her final landing in a cornfield near Chicago. After the landing, all seven aboard the airplane were able to make good their escapes, with only one suffering injury during the egress.
Many warbird enthusiasts and different companies restored this airplane to appear as the B-17G Flying Fortress, Liberty Belle. The original Belle served with the 390th Bomb Group. The United States Army Air Corps formed the group in mid-January 1943 and activated the unit on January 26.
They trained for war with the B-17s and moved to Framlingham, England in July 1943. They began combat operations on August 12, 1943 and continued through to the end of the war.
In September 1944, the group went up against targets in Dusseldorf, Germany. Twelve aircraft of the group were flying in formation when flak struck one of the airplanes amidships. The exploding bombs of the payload destroyed nine airplanes in the formation. Of the remaining three aircraft, only one made it home to Framlingham. That ship was the Liberty Belle.
The owner of the aircraft that crashed yesterday was Don Brooks. His father served with the 390th Bomb Group during the war. Brooks, in a tribute to his father, discovered this particular airplane and purchased it in 1990. He then created the Liberty Foundation, an organization dedicated to preserving and displaying the airplane.
On December 8, 2004 after 14 years of dedicated hard work by many paid and volunteer workers, the airplane flew for the first time after a $3.5 million restoration. Following the initial test flights, the airplane joined other vintage aircraft in touring the country.
Besides touring the United States, the Liberty Foundation flew the airplane to several airshows in Canada. In addition to rounds in the United States and Canada, the Liberty Belle also made a transatlantic crossing to visit England.
This particular airplane, SN 44-85734, never saw combat and had a unique journey from the times of the war to its last landing in the Illinois cornfield. In 1947, the government sold the airplane for scrap, but before destruction, Pratt & Whitney purchased the airplane for use as a test bed for their emerging turbine engines. After Pratt & Whitney completed their testing, they donated the airplane to the Connecticut Aeronautical Historic Association. While there, the airplane substantially damaged by a tornado in 1979.
During the restoration process, Liberty Belle became operational by cannibalizing another Flying Fortress. Tom Reilly’s company in Kissimmee Florida, the Flying Tigers Warbird Restoration Museum, performed most of the work.
Monday morning the airplane was to takeoff from Aurora Municipal Airport in Sugar Grove, Illinois. The aircraft and crew were bound for new destinations in Indiana. Shortly after takeoff, an engine fire developed in engine number one, the outboard engine on the left wing.
Another aircraft participating in the tour advised the bomber pilot of the fire and to “get it on the ground now!” That is exactly what the crew did. They lowered the landing gear and landed the airplane in a harvested cornfield.
After the landing, everyone got out of the airplane. The number one engine continued to burn and the fire spread. Eventually, the fire reached the high-octane gasoline in the fuel cells.
Monday afternoon, Don Brooks reflected on the loss of the airplane. He, like many, feels as though the crash of the airplane was a loss of a national treasure.
Indeed, it is.
© 2011 J. Clark