A piece of World War II history was lost Monday, June 13, in a cornfield outside of Chicago, when the Liberty Belle, a restored B-17 bomber built in 1944, caught fire and burned after making an emergency landing.
The Museum of Flight in Tukwila featured the Liberty Foundation’s “Salute to the Veterans tour” April 30 through May 1. The foundation flew the Liberty Belle to the museum for public tours and flights.
The B-17 is one of the most famous bombers from World War II. Thousands of the combat aircraft were built by the Boeing Co.
On Monday, the Liberty Belle was flying from Aurora Municipal Airport in Sugar Grove, Ill., near Chicago to Indianapolis Regional Airport, according to Liberty Foundation spokesman Ron Gause.
Shortly after takeoff, Gause said the pilot of a P-40 flying alongside the Liberty Belle spotted a fire in the B-17’s engine.
“The pilot in the P-40 told him to put it down,” Gause said. “There was one minor injury. The person was treated and released.”
The aircraft would have been carrying between 800 and 1,000 pounds of fuel behind the engine along with oil containers.
Gause said he suspects the fire suppression system was not successful and the flames probably burned through the aluminum shell reaching the fuel tanks.
“It only takes a few minutes to burn a wing right off an airplane,” Gause said. “That’s why you have to get it on the ground fast.”
Gause said the foundation has one more B-17. According to Gause, there are 13 B-17s left worldwide in flying condition and three more are in various stages of restoration. He stated very little of the Liberty Belle appears to be salvageable.
Gause said it took nearly 15 years and $3.5 million to restore the Liberty Belle.
“The Foundation lost about $4 million yesterday,” he said. “There were a lot of sad faces yesterday.”
The B-17s are an extremely safe aircraft to fly, according to Gause.
“The only thing I ever feared with the aircraft is an engine fire,” Gause said. “You couldn’t be flying a safer aircraft structurally.”
The Liberty Belle tour April 30 at the Museum of Flight presented a close-up view of the history of the flying fortress, which flew in both the European and Pacific theaters during World War II.
“Men loved it because it could take so much battle damage and still fly home,” Gause said. “There was one case where a fighter aircraft flew into the side of a B-17 and it still made it home.”
Gause noted the B-17 could lose three of its four engines and still make it back to home base.
When the aircraft was first built in 1935, it flew 150 mph, faster than any fighter aircraft the United States had at the time.
The Liberty Belle flew 64 combat missions with nine fatalities. Gause said in the last mission flown by the Liberty Belle during combat in World War II the tail gunner and waist gunner were killed and it was shot down in Belgium.
Boeing produced 12,732 B-17 bombers for use during the war and 4,250 were lost in combat, a ratio of about one in three, and 42,500 men went down with the planes. Not all the men who went down were killed.
The plane usually carried a 10-man crew with .50-caliber guns for defense, including a tail gun, waist guns and a ball turret gun.
Gause said the bomb load was determined by the target, ranging from 500-pound bombs to 100-pound fragmentation bombs. The aircraft could carry 38 incendiary bombs, or two 2,000-pound bombs or one 4,000-pound bomb.
The 4,000-pound bomb was used against German submarine pens according to Gause. The pens were constructed of thick concrete allowing the submarines to moor inside. The 4,000-pound bombs had a delayed-action fuse that would ignite the bomb after it busted through the concrete.
Gause said if the mission was to hit a factory constructed from wood, incendiary bombs were used.
The munitions and firepower aboard the B-17 is one part of the story, but the men who flew these planes and conditions tells another tale.
Gause pointed out the bombing missions were flown at about 20,000 to 30,000 feet, and temperatures inside the aircraft dropped at times to minus-30 to minus-70 degrees.
“There were incidences of ball turret and tail gunners freezing to death,” Gause said.
The Army outfitted the men in sheepskin coats and during later years of the war the suits were lined with electrical heating coils plugged into the plane’s electrical system. The suits were similar to electric blankets, but no system was perfect under such severe conditions. The sheepskin coats weren’t warm enough at extreme temperatures and the electrical coils in the suits at times failed.
If the temperature on the ground when the crew took flight was 40 degrees, it would be minus 50 at 30,000 feet.
Gause said the Liberty Belle Foundation brings the B-17 to communities to, “honor the veterans of World War II and teach young people a little of what the vets went through. They truly were the greatest generation.”