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updated: 6/15/2011 6:22 PM

B-17 operator: Repairs not cause of engine fire

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Maintenance issues that kept the Liberty Belle B-17 grounded last weekend did not contribute to the engine fire that caused the plane's emergency landing in an Oswego farm field Monday, according to the nonprofit group that operates the aircraft.

The Liberty Foundation, which restored the World War II bomber and began flying it in 2004, has not returned calls since the plane was destroyed by fire after its landing. But the Tulsa, Okla.-based group's chief pilot, Ray Fowler, posted a statement on the foundation's website saying repairs performed after a training flight Saturday have "not been, in any way, associated to the chain of events that led to Monday's fateful flight."

An inspection -- required by the Federal Aviation Administration after every 25 hours of flight -- was performed on the plane last week and the in-flight fire that struck one of its four engines could "indiscriminately affect aircraft of any age or type," according to the statement.

The statement praises pilots John Hess, a Delta Air Lines captain who has been flying the Liberty Belle since 2005, and Bud Sittic, a retired Delta captain, for landing the plane and evacuating all seven people aboard before the fire worsened.

Firefighters from Sugar Grove and Oswego led crews responding to the fire, but getting close enough to extinguish the blaze took about a half-hour, Sugar Grove Fire Chief Marty Kunkel said Wednesday.

Sugar Grove sent two vehicles specially equipped for dealing with aircraft fires and brush fires, but it took 15 minutes to find the field where the plane landed just after takeoff from Aurora Municipal Airport. Wet conditions in the field added to the delays, Kunkel said.

"(Our vehicles) actually got stuck and had to be pulled close to the aircraft," he said. "The fire actually was put out within five minutes once we were able to get to it."

Most of the debris had been removed from the field by early Wednesday morning, Craig French, a Kendall County sheriff's deputy said.

Some parts will be taken for analysis to the Washington, D.C., headquarters of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the accident, spokesman Keith Holloway said. Large parts of the Liberty Belle's body not needed for the investigation will be stored in a nearby hangar, Holloway said.

The NTSB likely will release a preliminary report about the accident early next week, but Holloway said the cause of the engine fire will not be determined at that time.

A final report could take 12 to 18 months, he said.