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Liberty Belle B-17 Destroyed After Emergency Landing

Liberty Belle
Liberty Belle was destroyed by fire after an emergency landing in an Illinois cornfield.

Audio: Listen to the event unfold from Aurora tower (Courtesy LiveATC.net)

June 13, 2011 —The B-17 Liberty Belle owned by the Liberty Foundation was forced to make an emergency landing in a field southeast of the Aurora, Illinois, Municipal Airport Monday morning at around 9:30 CDT when an in-flight fire occurred shortly after take-off. All seven people on-board the non-revenue flight escaped the aircraft, but the airplane was destroyed when it became engulfed in flames. One person on the plane was treated for a minor head wound at Rush-Copley Medical Center in Aurora and released.

Ray Fowler, Liberty Foundation chief pilot, issued a statement describing the events that led to the forced landing and called the efforts of the flight crew “nothing short of heroic,” adding that “their quick thinking, actions and experience led to a ‘successful’ outcome to this serious in-flight emergency” and that they did “a remarkable job under extreme circumstances and performed spectacularly.”

The takeoff of both the B-17 and another aircraft, Liberty’s P-40, aircraft was uneventful and proceeded on-course, Fowler wrote. “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. Almost immediately thereafter, Cullen spotted flames coming from the left wing and reported over the radio that they were on fire.” Cullen is Cullen Underwood, one of Liberty’s rated B-17 pilots, tagging along as a support ship, flying chase in his T-6.

At that moment the B-17 was directly over a cornfield the decision was made to land immediately, Fowler explained, and the plane was on the ground about 1 minute, 40 seconds after from Underwood’s radio report of the fire. During that 1:40, “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,” Fowler wrote. The crew and passengers quickly and safely exited the aircraft while Underwood flying overhead professionally coordinated and directed the firefighting equipment dispatched by Aurora Tower to the landing location.

What doomed the airframe was the fact that emergency firefighting equipment could not get to the airplane immediately as the ground was too soft from recent rains to support its weight. “At the time of landing, the wing fire damage was relatively small,” Fowler wrote. There were high hopes that the fire would be extinguished quickly and the damage would be repairable.

“There is no doubt that had the fire equipment been able to reach our aircraft, the fire would have been quickly extinguished and our Liberty Belle would have been repaired to continue her worthwhile mission,” Fowler asserted.

Refusing to speculate as to the cause of the in-flight emergency, Fowler wrote, “There is wild speculation going on as to the cause of our fire and the affect to other operators. Please let the investigation run its course and report the findings. The NTSB and FAA were quickly on the scene and we are working closely with them to aid in the investigation.”

Our hearts go out to the Liberty Foundation, as we at EAA know very well the time, money, and dedication that goes into restoring a B-17 and flying it on national tours. We’re especially relieved everyone was able to get out safely.

Unedited video from the crash scene via NBC Chicago:

View more videos at: http://nbcchicago.com.

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