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McClatchy Newspapers, Published June 14 2011

Restored B-17 bomber makes emergency landing amid engine fire

CHICAGO – They are hulking relics of aviation history, salvaged from scrap dealers and combat wreckage, painstakingly restored and – in rare cases – flown again.

Now there is one less of them.

In a dramatic scene that could have played out in Europe during World War II, a restored B-17 “Flying Fortress” bomber made an emergency landing Monday in a west suburban cornfield after an engine caught fire. Smelling smoke, the pilot skirted disaster by threading the plane between a 60-foot tower and a line of trees, witnesses said.

Seven crew members and volunteers escaped without serious injury as flames and a plume of thick black smoke soared into the clear blue sky from the wreckage of the Liberty Belle.

For aviation enthusiasts, the plane’s loss was a blow because of its historical value and emotional impact, and also because it’s so rare. Of the 12,731 B-17s manufactured, about 50 remain, including wrecked planes that have been pulled out of the water, according to the Experimental Aircraft Association, based in Oshkosh, Wis.

Only about 13 of the B-17s not in use are intact and could be overhauled to become airworthy. A total of eight fly in the U.S., and three of them carry passengers, the association said.

The workhorse planes that once dropped bombs over Germany hold a strong appeal for men like Mike Kellner, who has been restoring a B-17 in his barn near Marengo since 1995. “The bomber was “a symbol of freedom and might when we really needed it,” Kellner said.

“We might not have won the war without that airplane,” said Kellner, who worked on the plane that crashed Monday.

The Liberty Belle was at Aurora Municipal Airport this weekend, with crews offering flights to World War II veterans and others looking for a thrill-seeking history lesson.

On Monday, the plane took off from the Aurora airport at 9:30 a.m.on its way to Indianapolis Regional Airport, but was forced to make an emergency landing in the field near Oswego, just a few miles away, shortly after takeoff. The pilot had reported an engine fire, authorities said.

Witnesses described seeing the bomber flying low before it landed. An engine on the left wing – the one farthest from the cockpit – was on fire, they said.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating. Federal officials said they did not know the cause but were looking into maintenance performed on the plane over the weekend. Several people scheduled to fly in the bomber last week said their flights were canceled because of to maintenance problems.

Vintage military planes like the Liberty Belle are a top draw at air shows, second only to modern aerial performers like the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds, said Paul Wood, founder of the Warbird Heritage Foundation in Waukegan.

“When we display our Vietnam-era warplanes, it is amazing to watch the Vietnam War veterans come up with tears in their eyes,” Wood said. “The memories are incredible. That’s why we show the planes and tell the stories of the heroes who operated them in various conflicts.”

But getting them to fly again can be labor-intensive. Bombers can take more than a decade to restore. The engines are disassembled, heavily inspected and essentially rebuilt each year, said Dick Knapinski, spokesman for the Experimental Aircraft Association.

“The people who built them in the 1940s never expected the B-17 to be flying today,” Knapinski said. “But with proper care, they can be.”

The bomber that went down Monday was manufactured in 1944 and registered to the Tulsa-based Liberty Foundation. The Liberty Belle was sold on in June 25, 1947 as scrap and sold again later that year to Pratt & Whitney for $2,700, according to the foundation’s website.

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 said.

The Liberty Foundation had been flying the Liberty Belle 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 390th Bomb Group.

The plane traveled around the country, giving rides to the public at $430 each.

The plane had been maintained “meticulously” and not missed more than “a couple days” due to mechanical problems, said Brooks.

The pilot, whom Brooks would not identify, did “a masterful job” getting the plane down quickly and safely, he said.

“It’s a sad day but a good one in that no one was hurt,” Brooks said. “An airplane can be replaced.”