Calls for restrictions to passenger flights in WWII aircraft follow fatal B-17 accident in Connecticut

On 2 October WWII B-17 Flying Fortress Nine-O-Nine, owned and operated by the Collings Foundation crashed and caught fire at Connecticut’s Bradley International Airport (BDL), killing seven people and injuring seven more.

There were three crewmembers and ten passengers on board the aircraft. Captain Ernest ‘Mac’ McCauley, 75 and co-pilot Michael Foster, 71 were among those who died.

According to the airport authority’s Executive Director, Kevin Dillon the crew had indicated to the Tower that they were experiencing “some type of problem with the aircraft” approximately five minutes after takeoff.

The B-17 was observed to not be gaining altitude and unconfirmed witness reports together with ATC recordings suggest that there was a problem with one of the engines.

The aircraft made a low approach and struck multiple landing lights as it touched down. Video released by NTSB investigators shows that at least one propeller had been feathered by the time it struck the airport deicing facility and storage tanks after an apparent loss of control on the runway.

The B-17 was temporarily based at Bradley as part of the Collings Foundation’s Wings of Freedom tour. It was purchased and restored by the foundation in 1986 after serving as nuclear test subject, being sold for scrap and then being put back in the air for many years of service as a fire bomber.

N93012 did not see combat but was named and painted to honour the original Nine-O-Nine, which flew with the USAAF 91st Bomb Group’s 323rd Squadron. In response to the tragedy, the Collings Foundation announced that it was suspending its flight operations and the Wings of Freedom Tour for the remainder of the 2019 season.

According to a report posted on Federal investigators will take ‘a hard look’ at the possibility of restricting or banning rides for the US public aboard WWII-era aircraft following the accident.

“[This] is something we will look at, down the road,” said National Transportation Safety Board member Jennifer Homendy, in a measured response to reporters’ questions. “We’re still at the very early stages of this investigation and we’ll have to determine that at the appropriate time.”

Since 1982, when the NTSB began tracking safety issues in ‘heritage flights’ – which are currently conducted under Living History Flight Experience exemptions that provide operators relief from several FAA regulations – there have been a total of 21 accidents involving WWII bombers, resulting in 23 fatalities and one injury, excluding those killed or injured in the Nine-0-Nine crash.

Three of the previous accidents involved B-17G Flying Fortresses. Currently, there are sixteen B-17s registered to fly in the USA.

Pressure for the FAA to tighten up the rules has come from various quarters in the USA, some from within the historic aviation community.

Noting that aircraft like the B-17 “were designed to do one thing – deliver bombs and return” and that “there was no incentive to create passenger-friendly aircraft,” Former NASA engineer, vintage aircraft owner and aviation attorney Michael Slack has urged the FAA to take “a serious look at simply ending taking up passengers” on heritage flights.

“Most WWII aircraft are now seventy-plus years old… and the pool of pilots with the skills to fly these planes diminishes daily,” says Slack (although it should be noted that the pilot in command of Nine-0-Nine, Mac McCauley had more than 7,300 hours flying B-17s and was believed to be the most experienced B-17 pilot in the USA).

“The maintenance on these aircraft also requires special skills and knowledge and replacement parts are very difficult to find and are often fabricated.” Slack also noted that vintage aircraft are not equipped with modern technology to prevent post-impact fires and fuel dispersal.

The NTSB is expected to make a preliminary report on the crash later this month.

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