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Jordan Guinn We lost more than a plane in the Liberty Belle crash

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Jordan Guinn

Posted: Wednesday, June 15, 2011 12:00 am

Almost two months to the day after I took a flight in the Liberty Belle, a restored B-17 bomber from World War II, the plane caught fire and crashed in a cornfield near Oswego, Ill.

News-Sentinel photo chief Dan Evans, Lodi resident Chuck Casella (a tailgunner in the European theater during the war) and I all were passengers of the aircraft that flew over the Sacramento area in mid-April.

The four-engine Boeing plane was briefly stationed at Mather Air Force Base as members of the Liberty Foundation — a group that provides rides in historic aircraft — toured Northern California with the plane. We basically found Casella by luck. He responded to a news brief asking readers if they had flown in a B-17 before.

Casella initially declined the offer to take the flight with us, but his wife, Vedah, urged him to reconsider. I don't know what she said, but it worked.

The assignment was gratifying because it offered us the chance to reward a veteran and loyal reader with a rare opportunity. Watching a beaming Casella tour the aircraft as the steel behemoth rumbled through the sky is a memory I don't plan on relinquishing.

It was as if I watched a microcosm of the war as he shared memories and cracked jokes with the other former airmen.

I guess I still shouldn't be surprised he handled the flight better than me or Evans. After all, he was operating a .50 caliber machine-gun from the rear of the plane over the Mediterranean Sea before our dads were even born.

While Evans was feeling good enough when we touched down, I practically made out with the runway when I got off the plane. It's not that I didn't feel safe; I just hate flying to begin with. Ten more minutes in the air and they would've been pressure-washing my breakfast out of the restored fuselage.

The loss of the plane is tragic on several levels. The only positive is that no one was seriously hurt Monday. Not only are there likely heavy financial losses for the Liberty Foundation, but the plane is ruined beyond repair.

There are only 13 B-17s in flying condition left, according to Liberty Foundation spokesman Ron Gause.

Its loss offers sobering symbolism of the World War II generation that is also sharply declining in numbers.

Contact reporter Jordan Guinn at jordang@lodinews.com.

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