Tuesday, 14 June 2011

rosiedoes: (Planes: Falling)
Awful news, today. One of the world's last remaining air-worthy B17 Flying Fortresses, The Liberty Belle, has 'crashed' outside of Aurora, near Chicago.

According to news sources, another aircraft informed the pilot that the Liberty Belle was on fire and they made an emergency crash-landing, after which much of the plane was destroyed. The seven people on board all escaped uninjured, thankfully.

Growing up, I spent several years as an Air Cadet - a member of 398 (Staines & Egham) Squadron - and at around that age I first saw the film 'Memphis Belle' (clips of the real Memphis Belle here), which was a heavily fictionalised version of a true story, about the crew of a B-17 Flying Fortress, which was the first to complete its minimum required missions during WWII.

From that point on, I was in love with B-17s. They were such enormous and hardy craft - cramped as buggery inside, and carrying a ten-man crew, but displaying incredible endurance, many returning from raids over Germany with damage which would be catastrophic for most other aircraft.

Famously, the 414th's 'All American' flew back from Germany with its rear-section almost completely severed, as in the picture below. It broke in two upon landing.

Other planes came back with quite literally no nose:

Many others made it home with their gigantic tails - a core factor in both flying and steering the plane - all but ripped to shreds. 'Hang the Expense Again III' (not sure what happened to I & II, but if I had to hazard a guess...) made it home like this, even after the explosion blasted out her tail-gunner, who miraculously survived.

Once, at RAF Sealand, during a summer camp in 1997, with the Air Training Corps, I was allowed to touch an altimeter from an unknown B-17 and it blew my mind.

There are very, very few airworthy Fortresses left in the world, and the Liberty Belle was one of the few (the Memphis Belle is currently being restored, in Ohio). She never saw active combat and was sold in 1947 for scrap, before being saved by Pratt & Whitney, which used her as a testing craft for their engines. In the late-70s she was damaged by a tornado, while located at an aeronautical museum, and her fuselage was broken. Afterward, she was used to educate and provide experiences of flight in a B-17, by the Liberty Foundation.

I genuinely cried, writing this and looking up photographs to show just how amazing these aircraft were. Many enthusiasts would tell you that these planes helped win the war because they brought the war to the enemy - even when they were suffering 80% losses.

It's a truly devastating thing to see, and I hope that the remaining Fortresses are maintained and looked after as lovingly as the Liberty Belle was before this accident.

Goodbye, old girl.

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