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. Smelling smoke from a burning engine, 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 for the plane’s historical value and emotional effect, and 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.
Only about 13 B-17s are intact and could be overhauled to become airworthy. A total of eight fly in U.S., and three of them carry passengers, the association said.
The workhorse planes that once dropped bombs over Germany hold a strong attachment to 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 went down 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 thrilling 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, just a few miles away, shortly after takeoff.
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.