Fire destroys WWII bomber in Oswego

Bob Mudra was watching TV Monday morning in his home in Oswego's Lakeview subdivision when he was startled by a loud noise.

"I just heard something that didn't sound right," said Mudra, who went out to investigate.

What he heard about 9:40 a.m. was a World War II-era B-17 bomber making a fiery emergency landing in a field near Route 71 and Minkler Road.

Mudra looked out his window and saw a plane from the Naperville-based Lima Lima flight team circling close to the ground. He prepared for the worst.

"Oh, no, another Lima Lima plane is going to crash," he said.

Mudra walked through a field to the site where the plane was circling. When he was near the area where the crippled B-17 had gone down, there was an explosion.

"Some fuel exploded, and the plane cracked in half," Mudra said.

Hours later, as officials probed the scene, the charred remains of the restored B-17 remained in the corn and soybean field. The force of the explosion tore the aircraft in half, with the front end and engines leaning forward and dug into the earth, and the rear of the plane leaning backward. Both ends of the plane were severely charred. Between the two parts sat the plane's badly burned belly gunner module.

Seven people were on the flight, but only one minor injury was reported.

Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board were on the scene Monday afternoon talking to two Liberty Foundation pilots, Mike Walton and Dave Lyon, who normally fly the historic plane and offer flights to veterans and others interested in World War II aircraft.

It was unclear initially who was at the controls when the fire started on the plane and forced the emergency landing.

Tim Sorensen, an air-safety investigator for the NTSB 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 - believed to be a member of the Lima Lima team - that their aircraft was on fire. The fire apparently began in the bomber's No. 2 two engine, closest to the fuselage on the left side of the aircraft.

Sorensen praised the pilot, whom officials did not identify, for keeping his composure and setting the plane down in the field as part of a "controlled landing."

He said the bulk of the fire damage came after the bomber was on the ground.

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 to complete.

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.

Authorities said all the people aboard the plane were associated with the Liberty Foundation, which maintains and offers flights on the bomber.

Sorensen said the flight crew was "very coherent and very helpful and cooperative, and we are grateful they are OK and able to help."

He said the plane probably will be removed from the field Tuesday.

Several witnesses at the crash site said they saw the restored bomber circle their neighborhood several times at low altitude, followed by a smaller plane.

"I knew it was in trouble," witness Craig Bellafiore said. "It was way too low and slow."

"The plane was circling for about 10 minutes, then it got real loud with the engines," said Brock Spencer, a custodian at Hunt Club Elementary School on Minkler Road.

Spencer was outside the school washing and sanitizing chairs when the crash occurred.

"The plane circled and then banked sharply, then leveled off and landed in the cornfield," he said. "At first, there was just a little smoke coming out of the wing, and then it caught fire."

Spencer said he saw pretty quickly that people had gotten out of the plane, and sirens from emergency vehicles were sounding almost immediately.

The restored B-17 Flying Fortress was heading to Indianapolis, police said.

The B-17 had been using Aurora Municipal Airport in Sugar Grove as a base for the past week, offering paid flights to the public over the weekend through the nonprofit Liberty Foundation. According to publicity materials, the plane was one of just 14 B-17s still in flight. It was dubbed the Flying Fortress because of its defensive firepower.

Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Elizabeth Isham Cory said the bomber, manufactured in 1944, went down within minutes of leaving the airport about 9:30 a.m.

The plane crashed three to four miles southeast of the airport, Cory said.

The injured person, who was not identified, suffered a minor head wound and was taken to Rush-Copley Medical Center for treatment, then released.

Ray Fowler, Liberty Foundation chief pilot, said officials have not yet determined what triggered the in-flight fire and are just starting to gather information.

The bomber had been grounded by engine problems as far back as June 6 when rides scheduled for media members and World War II veterans were canceled at the Aurora Municipal Airport.

A Downers Grove man at the crash scene, Chuck Derer, 64, said he was supposed to go on a flight in the B-17 on Sunday, but it also was canceled because of mechanical problems.

Ÿ Staff writers Megan Bannister, Mark Black, Samantha Kiesel and Josh Stockinger contributed to this report.

Images: World War II B-17 crash in Oswego

An aerial view of the B-17 on fire in Oswego. courtesy of ABC 7
  A B-17 bomber made an emergency landing in an Oswego cornfield Monday morning. Rick West/
  Investigators view the wreckage of the vintage B-17 airplane that made an emergency landing in a cornfield near Oswego. Mark Black/
  Authorities still are trying to determine what sparked a fire aboard a restored World War II-era B-17 bomber that crash landed Monday in a field near Oswego. Mark Black/
An aerial view of the B-17 on fire in the Oswego area. courtesy of ABC 7
  The Liberty Belle, a World War II Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, goes for a short ride for the media in June 2010. RICK WEST/
  Pilot Mike Walton and co-pilot Dave Lyon stand next to their B-17 Flying Fortress bomber that they flew into Aurora Municipal Airport in Sugar Grove last week. The bomber is part of the Liberty Foundation. Rick Majewski/