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B-17 Crash Highlights the Debate Over Flying Warbirds

A World War II B-17G Flying Fortress bomber named Liberty Belle was destroyed by fire on June 13 after an emergency landing in a cornfield southwest of Chicago at Oswego, Ill. After appearing at events to mark the 67th anniversary of D-Day, the bomber took off from Aurora Municipal Airport at 9:30 a.m.

“Prior to exiting Aurora’s airport traffic area, the B-17 crew and passengers began investigating an acrid smell and started a turn back to the airport,” said a statement from the Tulsa-based Liberty Foundation, operator of the B-17. After pilot Cullen Underwood in an accompanying T-6 Texan spotted flames coming from the left wing and reported that they were on fire, B-17 pilot John Hess maneuvered the bomber to an impromptu landing short of the airfield.

After pilot Cullen Underwood in an accompanying T-6 Texan spotted flames coming from the left wing and reported that they were on fire, B-17 pilot John Hess maneuvered the bomber to an impromptu landing short of the airfield.

Said the foundation:

“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 2 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. Overhead in the T-6, Cullen professionally coordinated and directed the firefighting equipment, which was dispatched by Aurora Tower to the landing location.”

B-17G Flying Fortress

B-17G Liberty Belle of the Liberty Foundation, shown March 19, 2011. Robert F. Dorr Collection photo

Seven crewmembers and volunteers on board walked away without serious injury. Sadly, while the initial fire was not catastrophic, according to the Liberty Foundation, fire crews decided the field was too soft for their vehicles and elected not to try to reach the aircraft, which was ultimately almost completely consumed by flames.

The aircraft was a B-17G (serial no. 44-85734). Once used as a testbed by Pratt & Whitney – and flown in five-engined configuration with a test engine in the nose – it was donated in the late 1960s to the Connecticut Aeronautical Historic Association in East Hartford, but was heavily damaged in 1979 when a tornado threw another aircraft against the B-17’s midsection, breaking the fuselage. The foundation had been flying the bomber since it was restored in 2004, said Don Brooks, who established the foundation to honor his father, the tail gunner in the original Liberty Belle, who flew 36 missions in World War II with the U.S. Army Air Forces’ 390th Bombardment Group.

In the tight-knit community of Americans who fly restored military aircraft, known as warbirds, some now say they’re concerned that the highly visible Flying Fortress mishap will re-ignite an old argument – whether to fly these planes or stash them in museums.

In the foundation’s statement, chief pilot Ray Fowler wrote of “the exceptional safety record of the Boeing B-17″ and said he wanted to “squash the naysayers who preach we should not be flying these types of aircraft. Since we first flew the Liberty Belle in December 2004, we have flown over 20,000 passengers throughout the country and if you count our historic trip to Europe in 2008, worldwide. Of the other touring B-17s, some of which have been touring for over 20 years, they have safely flown hundreds of thousands of people. The aircraft’s safety record is spectacular and I am certain the overall cause of our issue, which is under investigation, will not tarnish that safety record.”

The idea of keeping warbirds in the air has wide support. “If you fly them, the aircraft can get out and visit communities that don’t have aviation museums,” said Bill Fischer of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), which is not affiliated with the aircraft lost in Illinois. “You’ve got to have due diligence with pilot training, maintenance and upkeep, but putting it into a museum limits the exposure of an aircraft to the public.”

“If you’ve got fewer examples of an aircraft type than you can count on one hand, it’s probably time to ground them,” said David W. Menard, a historian who once worked at the Air Force Museum. “On the other hand, if a guy wants to spend his own money to restore and fly an airplane, he can do so, no matter how rare it is. Many of us have mixed feelings about whether rare birds should be flown or grounded.”

Although an official determination of the probable cause of the mishap awaits a finding by the National Transportation Safety Board, most observers believe Hess, co-pilot Bud Stittic and others aboard the Liberty Belle did a superb job of saving everyone on board. Hess, Stittic, Fowler and Underwood are all highly experienced pilots each with more than 14,000 hours in various aircraft and each fully qualified to be pilot-in-command of a B-17.

The loss of Liberty Belle leaves just 13 airworthy B-17s surviving today. However, Liberty Belle was one of only three that make national tours and appear widely at air shows. The others are the EAA’s Aluminum Overcast stationed in Oshkosh, Wisc., and the Commemorative Air Force‘s Sentimental Journey, based in Mesa, Ariz. Both have busy summer schedules ahead. Liberty Foundation chief pilot Fowler said he would unhesitatingly allow his children to fly aboard either of these aircraft, punctuating his point about the safety record of the B-17.

American industry produced 12,731 B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers during World War II at factories operated by Boeing, Vega and Douglas. Beginning at Pearl Harbor and in the Philippines on the first day of U.S. participation in the war, B-17s fought in all theaters. The B-17 is best known for being the backbone of the Eighth Air Force, which conducted the air campaign against Nazi Germany in the European Theater of Operations – as described in postwar books like Twelve O’clock High and Command Decision. Two new books about B-17 operations were published only this spring, To Kingdom Come by Robert Mrazek and Mission to Berlin, by the author of this story.

By

Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...