North Bay connoisseurs of rare vintage aircraft bowed their heads Monday at word that the B-17 Flying Fortress that paid a visit to Sonoma County just two months ago burned in an Illinois field following an emergency landing.

"I'm a good friend of the pilot who flew it in here," said Lynn Hunt, a veteran pilot and restorer of historic aircraft in Santa Rosa.

He did not yet know if his friend, Bob Hill, was at the controls when flames erupted Monday on the "Liberty Belle" shortly after the World War II-era bomber took off from the municipal airport in Aurora, west of Chicago.

It's been reported that all seven people on board, including the crew and volunteers with the non-profit Liberty Foundation, escaped safely in a cornfield before fire destroyed the four-engine plane.

Witnesses praised the pilot for bringing the B-17 safely down between a tower and a line of trees.

The Liberty Foundation had sent the bomber around the nation to keep alive the history of the flying machines and aviators that helped the Allies prevail in World War II.

The B-17 and a Curtis P-40E Warhawk fighter came to the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport in early April and took North Bay people on rides. The passengers paid $430 to go up in the B-17, $1,050 to ride in the Curtis, but the fares allowed the Liberty Foundation to pay to keep the planes fueled and maintained.

Santa Rosa's Hunt, who has restored and maintained vintage war birds, said the Liberty Foundation is known for sparing no cost or effort in the maintenance of its aircraft.

He said it's a sad day when the country loses a B-17. "It's just irreplaceable."