"We smelled an acrid burning odor, got our attention almost immediately," Lawrence "Bud" Sittig, the pilot, said. "A fellow B-17 pilot that was flying chase with us called us on the radio and said, 'Hey, you are on fire.'"
Sittig is a 25-year veteran of the Colorado Air National Guard and a long time pilot for Delta Airlines. He volunteers for the Liberty Foundation, a nonprofit trying to share the history of old planes like this B-17 bomber known as the "Liberty Belle."
He says the fire started four minutes after take off. Sittig and fellow pilot John Hess initially throught they could make it back to the airport. But, after a few moments, the pilot in the chase plane called again.
"And, he said, 'Put it in a field, you're really burning,'" Sittig said. "That changed the scenario dramatically."
Sittig says that pointed out how bad the fire must've looked to the pilot in the plane behind him. With a residential area between him and the airport, he says he had no choice but to look for a place to land.
"If we had continued, I am not sure we would've made it," Sittig said.
Including himself, there were seven people on board. Sittig says his training took over and he focused on landing.
"I had a thoughtful moment about this, we were about to put this classic airplane into a field and what is going to be the outcome," Sittig said.
He spotted a cornfield about 2 miles away when something unexpected happened.
"The flaps are fully extended and the airplane begins to roll to the left," Sittig said. "That's probably the most critical moments that we had."
Sittig says the fire burned through one of the flaps causing the plane to fly asymmetrically. He and Hess fought through and landed the plane on a farm about 100 yards short of a grove of trees.
"We went into the flare and made a very smooth touchdown," Sittig said.
All seven people on board exited without injuries. He says the plane was largely in tact, but the fire was still burning.
"We stepped away from the airplane and then my mind goes to: How are going to save this airplane?" Sittig said.
That's when another problem surfaced.
"Then the real dilemma set in. The fire trucks couldn't get to the airplane because of the soft, muddy fields," Sittig said. "For the next 35 minutes, we stood there and watched that airplane burn to the ground."
History was lost.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the fire. Sittig says it definitely started on the left wing and was fed by the plane's fuel.
Sittig and the other passengers survived thanks to what the man with deep faith described as a guiding hand.
"It never occurred to me. It never occurred to me that this was a terminal event," Sittig said. "It never occurred to me, not was there ever a moment of fear or anxiety."
(KUSA-TV © 2011 Multimedia Holdings Corporation)