A World War II "Flying Fortress" bomber crashed and burned in a cornfield southeast of Aurora Municipal Airport this morning, but the seven people on board escaped without serious injury, officials say.
The B-17 took off from the airport at 9:30 a.m. and went down about three or four miles from Aurora about 20 minutes later, according to Elizabeth Isham Cory, a spokeswoman for the Federal Aviation Administration. "We believe the seven people on board escaped without injury."
The pilot made an emergency landing in a cornfield near Highway 71 and Minkler Road in Oswego after reporting an engine fire, according to Sugar Grove Fire Chief Marty Kunkle. Witnesses said he set the plane down between a tower and a line of trees.
One person on the plane was treated at Rush-Copley Medical Center in Aurora and released, hospital spokeswoman Courtney Satlak said.
Jim Barry was at his home in the Deerpath Creek subdivision when he heard a plane flying low overhead. "The windows were rattling. I said, 'That's a crop duster.' "
He looked out and saw the bomber and a smaller yellow plane. An engine on the left wing of the bomber -- the one farthest from the cockpit --- was on fire.
"Not a lot of flames, just more smoke than flames," Barry said.
The pilot managed to set the plane down in a gap between a relay tower about 60 to 70 feet high and a line of trees 25 to 30 feet high -- around 500 yards from his home. "He did a great job," Barry said.
Once the plane was on the ground, flames started shooting 50 feet in the air. Within minutes, emergency crews were at the crash site.
"It was shocking," Barry said.
A neighbor told him she saw the words "Liberty Belle" on the nose of the plane.
His neighbor, Drew Mundsinger, was driving back home with his son after dropping off other children at school when they saw the plane flying low overhead. A smaller plane was flying with the B-17.
Mundsinger said he knew the plane was in the area providing rides and didn't think much of it. When they came close to their home, they saw large plumes of dark smoke filling the air and at first thought it was someone burning leaves.
Then he and his son realized one of the planes had crashed. By the time he reached his home, he saw the plane burning in a cornfield about 500 yards behind his home.
"When we first came here, it looked like nothing could survive that," Mundsinger said. "It looked to be right by my subdivision so I got worried. The scary thing is, it was heading right at our house.
“It made my heart race up a beat," he added. "I can clearly look straight out at it.”
Gene Sheeley was loading groceries into his car outside a Jewel store when he heard a plane flying overhead. Looking up, Sheeley said he noticed the bomber was gliding extremely low over the intersection of Orchard Road and Illinois Route 71 in Oswego.
“I thought this puppy is flying low, but I didn’t realize it was going to crash,” Sheeley said.
But moments later Sheeley, 72, saw a large plume of black smoke rising into the clear blue sky. “The first thing that came to my mind was did anybody get hurt,” Sheeley said.
The B-17 was primarily deployed by the U.S. Army Air Forces in daylight strategic bombing of German industrial and military targets. It also participated to a lesser extent in the Pacific, where it conducted raids against Japanese shipping and airfields.
The plane that crashed was manufactured in 1944 and is registered to the Liberty Foundation in Miami, Fla., which restored the "Liberty Belle." The plane was at the Aurora Municipal Airport on Saturday and Sunday, according to the foundation's website.
The "Liberty Belle" was sold on June 25, 1947 as scrap to Esperado Mining Co. of Altus, Okla. and was sold again later that year to Pratt & Whitney for $2,700, according to the foundation's website.
Whitney operated the B-17 from Nov. 19, 1947 to 1967 to test turboprop engines. It was donated in the late 1960s to the Connecticut Aeronautical Historic Association in East Hartford, but was heavily damaged in 1979 when a tornado threw another aircraft against the B-17’s mid-section, breaking the fuselage, the foundation said.
It was stored in the New England Air Museum in Connecticut until the foundation began restoring it.
The plane travels around the country, giving rides to the public at $430 each. It was due to visit Indianapolis, Dayton and Cincinnati in the next few weeks.