Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The loss of the B-17 Liberty Belle

As I'm sure many of you heard, we lost a historic aircraft yesterday, the B-17 Liberty Belle. I saw this plane in Houston in 2007 and she was a beautiful piece of history. Absolutely wonderful.

I'd like to pass along an email I received from Ed Kindle, who is the President of the Air American Foundation in Titusville, FL. It's a message from the Liberty Foundation's chief pilot and clears up a lot of misconceptions about yesterday's incident.

Statement from Ray (Chief Pilot)

"First, let me start off by sincerely thanking everyone for the outpouring of support that we are receiving. I am sorry that I have not yet had the opportunity to return the many phone calls, text or e-mails that I am receiving offering to help. Again, thank you for all of the kind words that we are receiving and for incredible offers to help emotionally, financially and/or with the recovery process. I hope this statement will help fill in a few details that everyone is wondering about that led to the loss of our “Liberty Belle”.

Yesterday morning, both our P-40 and B-17 were scheduled to fly from Aurora, Illinois to Indianapolis, Indiana. We were in Aurora for the weekend as a part of our scheduled tour. Over the course of the previous week, we completed a scheduled 25-hour inspection on the B-17 which was completed by Saturday. On Saturday, the weather stayed below the required ceiling to give any passenger flights, however the B-17 flew in the morning on a routine training proficiency flight, performing several patterns. Following the flight, other maintenance issues arose that required us to cancel our Sunday flying schedule for repairs. The maintenance performed has not been, in any way, associated to the chain of events that led to Monday’s fateful flight, but is being considered in the preliminary investigation. However, due to the media’s sensational (mis)reporting, there is a large amount of misinformation that continues to lead the news.

Here is what we do know… Flying in the left seat of the B-17 was Capt. John Hess. John has been flying our Liberty Belle since 2005 and one of our most experienced B-17 pilots. He is an active Delta Air Lines Captain with over 14,000 hours of flying experience and flys a variety of vintage WWII aircraft. In the right seat was Bud Sittic. While Bud is new to the Liberty Foundation this year, he is also incredibly experienced with over 14,000 hours of flying time in vintage and hi-performance aircraft. He is a retired Captain with Delta Air Lines.

The news misidentified the P-40 as flying chase during the accident. I was flying our P-40, however I had departed 20 minutes prior to the B-17’s takeoff on the short flight to Indianapolis to setup for the B-17’s arrival. The aircraft flying chase was a T-6 Texan flown by owner Cullen Underwood. Cullen is one of our rated B-17 Captains and an experienced aviator tagging along as a support ship.

The takeoff of both aircraft was uneventful and proceeded on-course southeast. Prior to exiting Aurora’s airport traffic area, the B-17 crew and passengers began investigating an acrid smell and started a turn back to the airport. Almost immediately thereafter, Cullen spotted flames coming from the left wing and reported over the radio that they were on fire.

As all pilots know, there are few emergency situations that are more critical than having an in-flight fire. While it is extremely rare, it can (and sometimes does) indiscriminately affect aircraft of any age or type. In-flight fires have led to the loss of not only aircraft, but often can result in catastrophic loss of life. It requires an immediate action on the flight crew, as the integrity of aircraft structure, systems and critical components are in question.

Directly below the B-17 was a farmer’s field and the decision was made to land immediately. Approximately 1 minute and 40 seconds from the radio report of the fire, the B-17 was down safely on the field. Within that 1:40 time frame, the crew shutdown and feathered the number 2 engine, activated the engine’s fire suppression system, lowered the landing gear and performed an on-speed landing. Bringing the B-17 to a quick stop, the crew and passengers quickly and safely exited the aircraft. Overhead in the T-6, Cullen professionally coordinated and directed the firefighting equipment which was dispatched by Aurora Tower to the landing location.

Unlike the sensational photos that you have all seen of the completely burned B-17 on the news, you will see from photos taken by our crew that our Liberty Belle was undamaged by the forced landing and at the time of landing, the wing fire damage was relatively small. The crew actually unloaded bags, then had the horrible task of watching the aircraft slowly burn while waiting for the fire trucks to arrive. There were high hopes that the fire would be extinguished quickly and the damage would be repairable. Those hopes were diminished as the fire trucks deemed the field too soft to cross due to the area’s recent rainfall. So while standing by our burning B-17 and watching the fire trucks parked at the field’s edge, they sadly watched the wing fire spread to the aircraft’s fuel cells and of course, you all have seen the end result. There is no doubt that had the fire equipment been able to reach our aircraft, the fire would have been quickly extinguished and our Liberty Belle would have been repaired to continue her worthwhile mission.

Let me go on the record by thanking the flight crew for their professionalism. Their actions were nothing short of heroic and their quick thinking, actions and experience led to a “successful” outcome to this serious in-flight emergency. John and Bud (and Cullen) did a remarkable job under extreme circumstances and performed spectacularly. While the leading news stories have repeatedly reported the “crash” of our B-17, fact is they made a successful forced landing and the aircraft was ultimately consumed by fire. Airplanes are replaceable but people are not and while the aircraft’s loss is tragic, it was a successful result.

This leads me into discussing the exceptional safety record of the Boeing B-17 and to hopefully squash the naysayers who preach we should not be flying these types of aircraft. Since we first flew the “Liberty Belle” in December of 2004, we have flown over 20,000 passengers throughout the country and if you count our historic trip to Europe in 2008, worldwide. Of the other touring B-17s, some of which that have been touring for over 20 years, they have safely flown hundreds of thousands of people. The aircraft’s safety record is spectacular and I am certain the overall cause of our issue, which is under investigation, will not tarnish that safety record. In fact, as many of you know, other B-17 have suffered significant damage (although not as bad as ours!), only to be re-built to fly again. From a passenger carrying standpoint, I can think of few aircraft that offer the same level of safety as the 4-engine “Flying Fortress”. As mentioned earlier, in-flight fires are extremely rare and certainly could affect any powered aircraft under certain circumstances. I would put my children today in any of the other touring B-17s to go fly. I suggest to anyone that was thinking of doing so when a B-17 visits your area to do so without giving our loss any thought.

There is wild speculation going on as to the cause of our fire and the affect to other operators. Please let the investigation run its course and report the findings. The NTSB and FAA were quickly on the scene and we are working closely with them to aid in the investigation. As soon as we receive some additional information, we will release it via the website

The ultimate question remains, where does the Liberty Foundation go from here? After the investigation and recovery, we will determine our options. We are still committed to the restoration and flying of World War II aircraft. Again, we appreciate the support and people offering to help get us back flying.

Please check back for updates. I will close by thanking everyone that made our tour so successful. From the first day of the B-17’s restoration, thank you for all of you who labored to get her flying over the initial restoration years and to everyone that has worked on her out on tour since. Thank you to the crewmembers, tour coordinators and volunteers who gave up weekends and countless hours to support her on the road. And finally, thank you to the passengers, donors and media patrons that flew aboard and everyone who supported our cause. Hopefully, this will not be the end of the story, but a new beginning."


Ray Fowler
The Liberty Foundation, Chief Pilot

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Never rush. Ever.

I have some important advice that I think can help any pilot reading this, whether they are waiting to solo or have 20,000 hours. You remember learning about "get there itis?" and telling yourself you'd never risk your license and life to get somewhere if the weather was bad? Or having a scary "never again" experience? Great! Get there itis is the cause of a lot of head scratching accidents.

But how many times have you rushed through preflight prep? Maybe you haven't yet. But you will, at some point, be in such a flustered hurry that you'll mess something up. 

Maybe you're a calm person by nature and you never rush. But if your environment changes you may find yourself being forced into a hurry up role. 

Unfortunately when you fly for an airline, on time performance is king. And you'll be given planes that have issues, or get your paperwork late, or find something wrong with the aircraft on your preflight. And inevitably, you'll be told "we don't have time for that." 


So here's some sage advice from someone who hasn't been in this industry long, but has been in it long enough to recognize a few things.

The ground personnel don't have pilot's licenses. That gate agent angry about a maintenance delay isn't about to fly on that airplane. The mechanic may NOT have done the whole procedure and you'll be the party pooper who delays the flight to make sure everything's legal. Just do it. Don't worry about being popular. And don't do it just when you think the FAA is watching. Have personal integrity. 

Take the same amount of time on your walk around. Do the same cockpit prep you always do. Always double check your flight plan against the release (or the charts). Always check your NOTAMs, MELs and CDLs. You (and the other pilot, if there is one), are the FINAL authority on whether or not that aircraft is safe and ready to depart. It's your life and your ticket on the line.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

MDPC - Punta Cana

Note to self: the Dominican Republic does not run on island time!

See? I'm making an effort to write more. Keep reading and leaving comments and I'll keep writing!

Today is day 1 of 4: pretty easy day, a flight down to FLL and then flights to Punta Cana and back. You may think that the DR runs on island time but you'd be mistaken! The slam dunked us into the airport, leaving us high and fast. The A320 series aircraft are very "clean" aerodynamically. Less drag means a lot better fuel efficiency than most jets, but also means that you can't slow down at the same time you're descending.

The best technique with Fifi is to get down at a higher airspeed, then slow down when you're level. Today we had another aircraft (who shall remain nameless) come running up our behind! It was a Boeing, which can get down in a hurry at a faster speed than we can. Sometimes non-Airbus pilots just don't realize that, and in this case they ended up doing S turns on final to get some distance between them and us.

I could go on and on about how the responsible thing would have been to start slowing when we did (and we made a radio call to warn them we were slowing to approach speed), but I wasn't flying their airplane. I was just watching them come up behind us on TCAS.

Punta Cana is BEAUTIFUL, by the way. The terminal is made to look like it's a bunch of thatched roof buildings! Adorable. I'm adding this town to my list of places to visit for more than 30 minutes!

Monday, April 18, 2011

The pairing from hell returns...with avengance.

So thanks to crew scheduling, we actually have a pairing that looks like this, one I'm "lucky" enough to fly 3 times this month:

ACY-PBI-DTW-RSW <- day 1, 7:50 minutes of block
RSW-DTW-LGA-MYR-ACY <- day 2, 7:44 minutes of block.

The first time I flew this pairing I ended up with 16:41 block over the two's possible to fly more than 8 hours/day as long as it's something outside company's control - in this case our flights flew over block because of strong headwinds and weather deviations.

Last week our first day went pretty decently, we only arrived an hour late, in just after midnight instead of at 1:40 A.M. the last time around.

By the way, RSW tower closes from 0000-0600 local. So we're 0 for 2 landing with a controller in RSW this pairing. The horror! How did we manage? It's called a CTAF and position reports. It's not a big deal. I'm looking at you, CNN/Fox News/ABC News/media at large. (steps off soapbox)

Unfortunately last week we had a mechanical issue as we were trying to leave RSW. The A320 seems to be susceptible to mechanical issues that aren't even "mechanical." In our case we had some computers (that manage the PA system as well as our lavatory/cargo smoke detection) that refused to stay online. We thought it had something to do with the airplane not wanting to accept the ground power, however we couldn't test this theory as our APU (aux power unit, an on-board generator) was deferred.

After about 6 hours of troubleshooting company decided to ferry an A319 over from FLL, which we then took to DTW. We didn't depart until 8 hours after we were supposed to. Luckily 90% of our passengers were nice about it. The other 10%...karma will get back at them eventually.

Since we arrived in DTW so late they had already found another crew/airplane to take our last three legs. Instead we had to deadhead home the next morning (our day off, boo!). And since we don't have any direct flights from DTW-ACY during this part of the year, we had to deadhead through PBI. Ouch.

On the bright side: I got an extra 6 hours of pay out of the ordeal. Which makes up for the 6 hours or so that the captain and I spent helping maintenance, which of course we were not getting paid for. C'est la vie.

I head to ACY tonight as I have an early show tomorrow. Tomorrow and Wednesday I have a nice, easy pairing and a long FLL overnight (yay I can go to the gym!). However, Thursday and Friday I have to fly the pairing from hell again.

Wish me luck.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

something good finally

I realized (thanks @jasonensminger) that i neglected to actually post about last week's trip! And here I am on another trip. Time flies! I went to visit my parents and completely forgot.

Last week I had a pretty easy 3 day trip. Our first day was uneventful, a miracle in my option when you have to go to LaGuardia twice. We had a nice, if short, layover in NYC, just enough for me to hit the gym and get some sleep.

Our 2nd day we headed to FLL and flew a Cancun turn! First, you really get a better sense of close Key West is from Cuba when you're in the air. From over EYW you can easily see the coast of Cuba. It's standard practice to enter Cuban airspace on flights to the Southern Caribbean, and airlines make arrangements with the Cuban government (through the US State Department) for those rights. Overall the Cuban ATC is fantastic, although local traffic typically speaks Spanish with the controllers.

As for CUN - wow, what an airport! The ground crew was extremely professional, the gate agents nice, the cleaners had the airplane interior sparkling and smelling like a Bath and Body Works before we left. The terminal is brand new with clearly painted lead in lines for the gate. After push back the ground crew performed a FOD walk, looking for foreign object debris that could damage the aircraft.

Mexican ATC is pretty laissez-faire so you can't expect the explicit taxi clearances that you'd get from US ATC. Ours was "follow United to runway 12R." Hmm, ok!

Day 3 started out rough - no one wants to wake up at 3 am. It was worth it for the flight to LGA. Flying over the ocean up the east coast we had a fantastic sunrise to enjoy. Heading into New York we were cleared to descend to 4000 feet and "fly direct to the bridge and then proceed north up the river." Best. Clearance. Ever.

This is apparently an old school LGA approach, where you fly to the Varranzano Bridge (which I'm sure I didn't spell right), then turn left, head right at the Statue of Liberty (!!!) and fly up the Hudson river. At 4000 feet. It was a fantastic tour of New York City. Immediately below and to our right I could see Ground Zero, the Empire State Building (which is even more impressive from the air), the lights of Time Square and Central Park. All in the early morning clear-as-glass air. North of Manhattan just make a right turn to intercept the final approach course and shoot the visual approach to runway 22. A-mazing. Definitely one of the top 3 flights of my life (one of the others was my very first flight in a jet, in which we did much the same approach).

Blue skies!!