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Catastrophe in Connecticut

Collings Foundation B–17 crash claims lives

Editor's note: This article was updated October 4 to include new information about the Collings Foundation suspending the Wings of Freedom Tour for the remainder of the 2019 season.

Seven people were killed and seven (including six passengers and one person on the ground) were injured, some critically, when the Collings Foundation Boeing B–17 Flying Fortress Nine O Nine crashed October 2 during an attempted emergency landing at Bradley International Airport in Connecticut.

NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy and investigator Dan Bower at the scene October 2 of the crash of a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress at Bradley International Airport in Connecticut. Photo courtesy of the NTSB.

The crash occurred shortly before 10 a.m. during a morning flight with paying passengers aboard, and brought a swarm of firefighters and other first responders to the scene. The state’s busiest commercial airport was closed for several hours.

Details emerged over a series of press conferences about an ill-fated flight that struggled from the start, and ended with the historic bomber, one of few still airworthy, crumpled and on fire in a storage facility for deicing fluid some distance from the runway on which the crew had attempted to land. Airport workers and firefighters rushed to help survivors trapped in the burning wreckage.

NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy addressed the media within hours after she reached the scene to become the public face of the agency's 10-member Go Team tasked with investigating the crash, which Homendy described as a "significant tragedy."

"I am surprised that people survived," Homendy said. "I'm thankful of course, but of course, our hearts go out to those who lost their loved ones."

Connecticut State Police released the names of the flight crew, passengers, and an airport worker who was injured on the ground on October 3.

The pilot, Ernest "Mac" McCauley, 75, of Long Beach, California, was the most experienced B–17 pilot in the country, with 7,300 hours in the aircraft, Homendy reported at an October 3 press conference. McCauley also served as the organization's safety officer, and was eulogized on Facebook by his friend and fellow Collings Foundation pilot Eric Whyte as a former football player "who took pride in being a curmudgeon" and loved dogs enough to sneak away to animal shelters during tour stops and walk the dogs "since being on the road he couldn't have one of his own."

Co-pilot Michael Foster, 71, of Jacksonville, Florida, also died in the crash. The third crewmember, Mitchell Melton of Dalhart, Texas, was injured and hospitalized after the accident.

Two volunteer firefighters from the nearby town of Simsbury were among the 10 passengers, and one of them, Chief Master Sgt. James Traficante, 54, was identified October 3 as the Connecticut Air National Guard member who had brought his military-issue flame retardant gloves for the flight. According to the Hartford Courant, Traficante used those gloves to open the hatch and allow fellow passengers to escape the intense post-crash fire.

“During the course of the next coming days you are going to hear about some heroic efforts of some of the individuals who were in and around that plane,” said James Rovella, the state's top public safety official, in a media briefing on October 2.

The NTSB is seeking additional witness reports, and several witnesses told local media that the aircraft was flying low and appeared to have difficulty gaining altitude. The pilot requested a return to land very soon after takeoff, according to radio transmissions reported by local media including the Hartford Courant, and the tower diverted inbound flights to clear a path. The bomber's crew reported trouble with the "number four engine" and had requested a return to the airport to "blow it out."

Homendy said October 3 that NTSB investigators plan to follow up on emailed witness statements that one or two of the bomber's four engines were seen being worked on prior to the flight.

The B–17 landed short of Runway 6 and struck an approach light stanchion and veered right. Momentum carried it across the grass and into a final impact with a truck and a storage tank in the airport's deicing fluid storage facility, where two workers were present and one of them was injured.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with those who were on that flight and we will be forever grateful to the heroic efforts of the first responders at Bradley Airport,” said Hunter Chaney, director of marketing for the Collings Foundation, in an email October 2. The nonprofit organization operates a fleet of vintage aircraft, touring the country and offering rides to help fund operations. “The Collings Foundation flight team is fully cooperating with officials to determine the cause of the crash of the Boeing B–17 Flying Fortress and will comment further when details become known.”

Local resident Laura Nolan told the Hartford Courant that she was driving east on a state road that skirts the south end of the airfield when she spotted the B–17 approaching unusually low.

“He was treetop level when I saw him,” Nolan told the newspaper. “And one of the engines wasn’t spinning.”

Other eyewitnesses reported unusual engine sounds and said the aircraft was flying alarmingly low.

The B–17G was built in 1944 and restored by the Collings Foundation in 1986, according to the Courant.

The foundation’s “Wings of Freedom Tour” stop at Bradley International Airport was scheduled to include five World War II aircraft, including the B–17 billed as one of only nine still flying in the United States. The foundation has suspended flight operations and the Wings of Freedom Tour "for the remainder of the 2019 season" and is "in the process of issuing refunds for those who had reserved flights through December," according to a statement on the group's website.

AOPA has flown with the Collings Foundation crews, who likened the collection of working warbirds to a “national treasure.”

Jim Moore

Jim Moore

Managing Editor-Digital Media
Digital Media Managing Editor Jim Moore joined AOPA in 2011 and is an instrument-rated private pilot, as well as a certificated remote pilot, who enjoys competition aerobatics and flying drones.

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