Those were the words of Don Brooks founder of the Liberty Foundation and
owner of the Liberty Belle B-17. B-17G 44-85734 crash landed and burned to the
ground yesterday (June 13, 2011) while on a tour of the U.S. giving air rides.
The aircraft had experienced a few mechanical problems Sunday and had to cancel
the rides for that day. The crew made repairs and the plane was on its way to
Indiana for the next stop in the tour. For some reason the #2 engine caught fire
and the pilots were forced to land in a field where this beautiful aircraft
burned to the ground after everyone escaped.
This aircraft never saw combat in WWII, but it still had a very unique history. It rolled off the assembly line on May 14, 1945 and pretty much went straight into storage. In 1947 it was sold as scrap, but before it could be cut up the Pratt and Whitney Aircraft Div of United Aircraft Corp made arrangements to purchase two B-17s for $5,400 each. The other aircraft P&W bought was used as spares and was finally scrapped in the late 1950s. B-17 734 was flown to the Boeing factory in Seattle, WA to be modified as an engine test bed. Basically the nose was modified as a 5th engine mount to test new engines. To make this work, Boeing had to move the entire cockpit section four feet aft to make room for the mods and to better balance the aircraft. The reason this aircraft was used this way was so that an engine could be flight tested without worrying about the aircraft crashing during the testing. The B-17 took off normally and then once in flight the test engine was started and the four regular engines shut off. If there was a problem they simply restarted the four main engines and landed the plane. The engines tested on the this plane were mostly the new turbo-prop engines being designed including the engines eventually used on the Douglas C-133 Cargomaster.
In 1967 the airplane was donated to the Connecticut Aeronautical Historic Association in East Hartford Ct. The plane was displayed outdoors and continued to decay until Oct. 1979 when a tornado hit the museum. Twenty three aircraft were destroyed and forty were damaged. An SA-16A Albatross was lifted and tossed 600 feet to land inverted on 734's midsection. Of course the small museum had no money to try and repair the B-17. In 1988 the museum reorganized and the remains of the plane were traded to Tom Reilly in Kissimmee, FL in exchange for restoration work he did on a B-25H for the museum.
Tom took on the restoration of this aircraft even though it was a daunting task. The mid section of the ariframe was broken, the aircraft had sat outside for twenty plus years, the cockpit had to be moved back to its original location and a nose section had to be built to replace the one removed by Boeing for the engine test mounts. It took over nine years to restore the aircraft, but it was brought back to flying condition and was eventually bought by Don Brooks in 2003.
Don bought the airplane to honor his Father Elton Brooks, an Eighth Air Force Tailgunner, as well as the thousands of other men who fought the the daylight air war over Europe between 1942 and 1945. Don eventually formed the Liberty Foundation to operate the Bomber and get it back in the air. On December 8, 2004 B-17G 44-85734 took to the skies again. The plane was painted and marked as the 390th Bomb Group's Liberty Belle (B-17G 42-97849) a bomber that Brooks father crewed during the war. In 2005 the airplane started touring the US offering flights to those who loved these planes so much. In 2008 the Liberty Belle crossed the Atlantic to participate at some British airshows and events. It arrived in Duxford on July 4th as was appropriate for a plane named Liberty Belle. The aircraft made it back to the US in late July and has since then been touring the country giving rides to enthusiastic fans.
Later in 2008 I was one of those fans who got to ride in this beautiful aircraft and I'll never forget it. I can't describe the feeling of those 4 radial engines rumbling, the wind whipping past the open wind in the radio compartment, sitting in the bombardier's seat, holding the waist guns....well you get the feeling. As Mr. Brooks said, we lost a National Treasure and I feel like I lost a friend. Rest In Peace Ms. Belle, you will be missed.