Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Lost Piece Of History: B-17 Liberty Belle

Liberty Belle  1945-2011
The B-17 Flying Fortress. Those words conjure up one of the iconic images of WW II. Four-engined bombers lumbering across the skies of Europe and the Pacific, facing enemy flak and fighters to drop tons of bombs on the Axis powers. B-17s were designed and built to be tough. Planes would take astonishing amounts of damage; holes blown through wings or fuselage,  one, two, sometimes even three engines non-functioning or missing completely, parts of the tail shredded with flak holes - or blown off - and still bring crews home alive.

12,731 units were built between 1936 and 1945. Fewer that 50 examples survive today, on display in museums, in storage or as partial hulks. Of those survivors, around a dozen were left in flyable condition, preserving history as interactive flying museum pieces. Airshow crowds could thrill to the sound of four Wright Cyclone piston engines as a B-17 flew past the show-line. Or, purchase sight-seeing rides and imagine what it was like to be a bombardier or waist-gunner facing down German Me-109s.

Over the years, I've seen B-17s at various air shows, in both static and flying displays. A few years ago I had the opportunity to take a guided tour through a B-17 at the Vintage Flying Museum in Fort Worth. It was a special experience to be up close and personal with the type of aircraft one of my grandfathers had serviced as an Air Force mechanic in the post-war period.

On June 13th, the aviation community lost a piece of history. B-17G s/n 44-85734, known as "Liberty Belle", suffered an in-flight fire and made an emergency landing in an Illinois field before being destroyed by fire. True to her design's combat reputation, she brought home all seven of the crew and passengers on board without injuries.

Clear skies, Liberty Belle.

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