Pilot John Shuttleworth has logged more than 300 hours manning the cockpit of the ill-fated Liberty Belle B-17 and is sad he won't have the chance to add any more.
Shuttleworth, who has flown several planes for the Liberty Foundation, including events at the Aurora Municipal Airport, called the WW II-era aircraft a national treasure. He said receiving news it was destroyed by fire this week was "gut-wrenching."
The restored B-17 was en route from Aurora Municipal Airport in Sugar Grove to an airport near Indianapolis when the crew began to smell smoke. The plane made an emergency landing in a field near Oswego and burst into flames a short time later.
All seven people aboard escaped, but the bomber was destroyed.
"I've heard about the situation and have been in contact with the (Liberty) foundation. It truly is a real shame to lose such a significant piece of our nation's history," Shuttleworth said Tuesday from Columbus, Ohio. "This airplane being destroyed is a tragic loss. It's right up there with losing a national park."
Shuttleworth also praised the pilot, who officials still refuse to identify, for getting the plane down safely and evacuating everyone on board.
"The plane was made to land on rough surfaces so landing on grass or in a field is not a big deal for a B-17," he said. "But getting in position to find a good field of proper length and approach was great execution on the pilot's part. They did a great job."
Tim Sorensen, an air-safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board for the past nine years based out of the DuPage Airport in West Chicago, said the crew of the B-17 had smelled smoke and was trying to find the source when they were alerted by another plane that their aircraft was on fire. The fire apparently began in the bomber's No. 2 engine, closest to the fuselage on the left side of the aircraft.
Investigators will examine the plane as well as pilot and maintenance records before issuing a report in about a week, Sorensen said. A final report could take more than nine months.
Sorensen and others said there were maintenance issues over the weekend that kept the B-17 crew from offering rides to the public, but the pilots determined it was safe to fly Monday.
Shuttleworth said he never questioned the maintenance of any of the Liberty Foundation's planes, especially the Liberty Belle.
"I know that airplane was impeccably maintained. There are never any corners cut," Shuttleworth said. "That's the best part about flying for the foundation; you know you'll always have a solid piece of equipment to fly."
Even with the loss of the Liberty Belle, Shuttleworth said the foundation will now "focus and solidify its energy" on the restoration of a new, recently acquired B-17.
"Hopefully in another 10 years, we'll have another plane up there to take veterans and the public up in," Shuttleworth said. "That's the goal."
Officials from the Liberty Foundation did not return phone calls Tuesday.
According to the Experimental Aircraft Association, based in Oshkosh, Wis., 12,731 B-17s were built and about 50 remain.
Shuttleworth said the Liberty Belle was one of only 14 remaining flight-worthy airframes.
"Several others exist but they've been demolished beyond the point of usefulness," he said. "Of those 14, only eight or nine are flying in the United States and they're not flying much more than once or twice a year."