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World War II bomber plane lands in flames in cornfield near Oswego

Oswego Fire ProtectiDistrict other arefire departments extingush flames wreckage Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress  Oswego  Monday. | Sun-Times Media

Oswego Fire Protection District and other area fire departments extingush flames in the wreckage of a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress in Oswego on Monday. | Sun-Times Media

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Updated: September 21, 2011 12:34AM



During 64 perilous World War II combat missions over Europe, the Liberty Belle survived the hellfire of German flak and a calamitous night in which six of the nine bombers in its squadron were destroyed.

But in sunny, clear and peaceful skies above Chicago’s western suburbs Monday morning, a working replica of the B-17 bomber caught fire shortly after take off from Aurora Municipal Airport.

Only the apparent quick thinking and skills of the pilot, John Hess, who emergency-landed the vintage plane in a muddy Oswego cornfield, saved the lives of all seven people aboard without serious injury.

“He did all of the right things,” the plane’s owner Don Brooks said of Hess as National Transportation Safety Board investigators inspected the charred wreck of the restored bomber, which has been touring the U.S. offering rides to paying passengers with the Liberty Foundation since 2004. “I’m proud of our guys.”

Emotional volunteers and middle-aged male members of the plane’s crew who survived the flight hugged each other as they huddled at the airport after speaking with the Federal Aviation Administration Monday afternoon. Visibly shaken by their ordeal, they declined to comment.

Several Oswego residents saw the plane burning as it came down minutes after taking off bound for Indianapolis at 9:30 a.m., according to Richard Seitz, who heard a “cracking noise,” then saw the plane in a field behind his house.

Black smoke billowed from the plane just five miles from the airport near Route 71 and Minkler Road. But extremely wet and muddy fields made it impossible for firefighters to get to the scene in time to save the plane, Sugar Grove Fire Chief Marty Kunkel said.

One person suffered a minor head injury when exiting the plane, but no one was seriously injured, Kendall County deputy Craig French said.

Brooks described the plane as a “national treasure” as he reeled from the news of its loss at his Georgia auto body shop Monday afternoon. One of only a dozen World War II-era B-17s still flying, it was grounded over the weekend with a fuel leak and was on a test flight when it went down in flames Monday, according to Pat Tessin, an aviation enthusiast who spoke with engineers working on it Sunday.

Brooks said that the plane has safely flown passengers in England, Canada and all over the U.S. and that despite minor maintenance issues over the weekend, there was no warning of the potential for disaster.

“They thought they had it fixed,” he said. “And maybe what they were working on was fixed, and this was an entirely different problem.”

Hess told him he was forced into an emergency landing after the wing caught fire, he said.

An NTSB investigation is expected to take months to complete.

On the Liberty Foundation’s Facebook page, fans of the Liberty Belle tribute plane expressed their condolences.

“So sorry about the loss of your beautiful aircraft. Totally heartbreaking news,” one man wrote. “A priceless piece of American history was lost today. My thoughts and prayers are with all of the Liberty Foundation. Most important thing is that everyone on board got out OK.”

‘NATIONAL TREASURE’

The Liberty Belle’s owner, Don Brooks, was disheartened Monday morning at what he called the loss of a “national treasure.”

More than 12,000 B-17s were built during WWII, Brooks said — after Monday’s accident, only 11 remain flying over the U.S, he said.

Brooks was still reeling from the news around 2 p.m. Monday as he talked about the plane from inside his Georgia auto body shop.

In homage to his father, who flew more than 30 B-17 missions during WWII, Brooks started the Liberty Foundation. The foundation was formed to honor veterans, and to educate the public about the price of freedom and the heritage of aviation.

Brooks found success in purchasing several historic planes to tour, but spent more than a decade in search of a B-17. He struck gold in 2002 when he purchased the plane from a man in Florida. While the plane had never been in combat, it was identical to the B-17s his father used to fly. Brooks purchased the plane and had it painted to resemble the original “Liberty Belle”, flown by his father’s bomb group.

Brook’s B-17 plane was built in May of 1945, just as the war was ending, and was flown to Oklahoma for disposal. Just before being sold for scrap metal, the B-17 was purchased to be used as an engine test bed where it underwent drastic changes. It was eventually retired from service and donated to the New England Air Museum.

In 1979, a tornado struck the museum damaging the plane and forcing it into storage until 1990 when it was purchased by Tom Reilly of Kissimmee Florida.

Reilly began restoring the plane to its original model.

In 2000, Brooks’ Liberty Foundation purchased the project from Reilly and had the plane restoration continued by Tim Reilly Vintage Aircraft conservators at a cost of $3.5 million.

On Dec. 8, 2004 –after 14-years of restoration work — the new Liberty Belle made her first flight as a fully-restored B-17.

Since then, Brooks said the plane has had very few problems.

“The maintenance and crew training has been excellent,” Brooks said of his staff. “We have flown for a lot of people over the years, and I hate to see it destroyed.”

Since its initial flight, Brooks’ B-17 plane has made rounds over England, Canada and the US.

Despite minor maintenance issues over the weekend, there was no warning of the potential for disaster.

“They thought they had it fixed,” he said. “And maybe what they were working on was fixed, and this was an entirely different problem.”

Sun-Times Media



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