FAA Rejects Collings Foundation Request To Carry Passengers


Citing lapses in training, maintenance and the lack of a safety culture, the FAA has rejected the Collings Foundation’s permission to carry passengers on revenue flights in its 10 vintage aircraft. The decision was prompted by the FAA’s investigation into the crash of the foundation’s B-17G Nine-O-Nine at Windsor Locks, Connecticut, on Oct. 2, 2019, that destroyed the aircraft and killed five passengers and two crew members. Six occupants survived, some with serious injuries.

Collings offered revenue rides in the B-17G under the FAA’s Living History Flight Exemptions program, which operators can renew every two years. Collings had applied for the renewal, but the FAA declined to approve it because it said the foundation failed to follow agreed-upon training and maintenance requirements. In the rescission of the exemption, the FAA said, “Based on a review of the relevant records and other evidence, the FAA has determined Collings was not fulfilling several requirements of the exemption.”

Specifically, the FAA found that Collings failed to train the aircraft crew chief, as specified in its operating guidelines. “In an interview with the FAA on March 2, 2020, the crew chief verified that he received no initial training and was unaware of basic information concerning operations under the exemption. Instead, he only received on-the-job training. This lack of training indicates Collings failed to fulfill the terms of condition and limitation Nos. 4 and 7,” the FAA’s document said. The two limitations require specific training and documentation. Further, the crew chief told the FAA he was unaware that a safety and risk management program existed at all for the foundation. “This absence of awareness and lack of training establishes that Collings failed to maintain and apply on a continuous basis a safety and risk management program that met or exceeded the criteria specified in the FAA Policy,” the rescission document said.

Although the NTSB continues to investigate the crash and has not determined a final cause, the FAA’s initial findings found significant maintenance issues with two of the engines. “Inspection of the engines on the B-17G … established magneto and ignition failures existed. Regarding engine 4, to prevent the magneto P-leads from separating from the magnetos, someone had attempted to rig the magneto leads in place with safety wire. Inspection and testing of engine 4 left magneto revealed the movement of the safety-wired lead caused grounding to the case, which rendered the magneto lead inoperative. In addition, the right magneto of engine 4 was found unserviceable. The cam follower was worn beyond limits and the point gap was less than half the measurement required by service documents. When tested, the magneto produced weak or no spark to four of the nine cylinders. All spark plugs were inspected and required cleaning and all electrode gaps were out of tolerance,” the FAA document said.

The initial investigation revealed that the number 3 engine also had fouled spark plugs, with gaps out of tolerance. Signs of detonation were found in both engines. “As a result of these findings and other information, the FAA questions whether the engines were inspected adequately and in accordance with the applicable maintenance requirements,” the FAA said. “Moreover, the records memorializing the inspections and maintenance performed on the B-17G lack key information and, in some cases, indicate maintenance was either not performed at all or was performed in a manner contrary to the applicable requirements,” the document said.

Since the crash, Collings has continued to tour with its aircraft, although it voluntary paused revenue flights. In an FAA docket documenting the request for a renewal of the LHFE exemption, public comments were overwhelmingly in favor of granting it. “In consideration of the foregoing, I find that a grant of exemption is not in the public interest because it would adversely affect the safety of Collings Foundation’s U.S.-registered aircraft, the FAA-certificated airmen that would be participating in the operations, the passengers on board the aircraft, and others involved in or affected by the operations,” said the rescission document, signed by Robert C. Carty, deputy executive director for the FAA’s Flight Standards Service.

AVweb has contacted Collings for a response and will update this report as soon as it’s available.

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  1. There are larger issues with flying members of the public in warbirds:

    1) Warbirds are inherently dangerous. Bomber engines seem to be prone to fluid leaks and fires.

    2) The public assumes there’s no risk when somebody takes their money and says to get on the plane, and rightfully so. They don’t have the experience to say, “Wait a minute. This is an 80 year-old plane that was just substantially rebuilt a few years ago.”

    We used to do air shows with the flight line over the crowd. We don’t do that any more because of several accidents. Regarding warbirds, at a minimum, only informed passengers should fly on the plane.

    • Bingo! 75 year old warbirds ARE inherently dangerous, even when NEW!
      What we saw here was a FOUR engine airplane being incapable of a simple return to airport.
      Even the great pilots could not make the relatively simple return when they had an engine problem.
      it’s NOT maintenance, it’s 1930’s tech and planes designed only to last 30 hours…

      • In this case, it WAS MAINTENANCE (the lack of it) that caused the crash. Read the reports. Mags held together with safety wire. All the plugs are bad. Inspections long overdue. A reckless attitude toward safety was what crashed the 909. Don’t blame it on 1930’s tech.

        • And yet, I’ve met bomber pilots from that era who said that after the war, that they would never set foot in one ever again. They understood the high risk and only flew because it was a wartime need. Planes were rapidly “designed” and built by people who had never even seen a plane before. Many killed ferry pilots who were tasked with delivery. Bob Hover crash an untold number of new planes when he worked at a depot. Add 75 years of wear and tear and lack of spare parts and organizations (without the unlimited funds of a wartime government) trying to keep them going and it’s going to end badly. No one can afford to give ancient 4 engine piston bombers “proper” maintenance so that is a given.

          • 75 years of wear and tear ?? Most of these warbirds have had many, many skins and many parts of sub-structure dis-assembled, replaced and re-assembled. This airplane WASN”T flying with magnetos that had not been touched in 75 years, or the SAME magnetos for 75 years. It’s a absolute given the mags and plugs needed to be Inspected and measured, and at least 1 magneto replaced, but the costs of just *that* level of maintenance are not so expensive, that one would say “No One Can Afford to Give Ancient 4 Engine Piston Bombers “proper” Maintenance” — Nothing about the 909 crash I’ve read in the FAA points to “to expensive” or “too old”… Rather, I am seeing “Callous disregard and Willful negligence” at worst, or possibly “Laziness” , and at the mildest “flying too much / too frequently or flying on too tight of a schedule”. The lack of training and instruction given the Crew Chief IS just pitiful over-sight and organization management. IF that fault falls on the (deceased) Pilot In Command (RIP), who was ALSO the Chief of Maintenance — another example of really bad organization and lack of checks/balances —- then that is just more poor management.
            But do NOT paint the other Warbird operations with the same paintbrush. I’ve been around and worked with a handful of organizations that maintain their a/c by the manufacturer’s certified instructions and FAA regulations (sometimes according to an FAA-reviewed and approved maintenance plan), that use new and properly yellow-tagged parts, and were absolutely willing to tell the public ‘sorry, we cannot fly, the airplane is not ready and needs some work and a check-out’.

  2. We all know that maintenance is expensive and time consuming especially with aging aircraft. With that said there is no excuse for this type of shoddy care on 80 year old warbirds that fly passengers. The issue with the mags is an inexcusable lack of concern for public safety. In this case I agree with the FAA and the Company should get its act together before they can fly again.

  3. New parts and new run in engines with cowls and engine mounts already installed (bolt on) were very plentiful in WW2 days not so now. It takes very good and knowledgeable maintenance personnel to keep these machines up to snuff. A person would be hard pressed to find a good mech. to climb up on those greasy engines in 20 something degrees F with snow out and clean/gap sp. plugs and change mags and for what? A joy ride around the patch. Its all hind sight now but unprofessional/bandaid maint. caught up and now the Feds. dropped the hammer.

  4. I find it hard to blame the maintenance personnel. These aircraft ARE different than something built today–those engines were built to last a couple of hundred hours AT MOST–given their operating conditions.

    After saying that, there ARE differences in “paying passengers” for airlines and commercial operators–vs. those that want to fly in one of these rare warbirds. I’ve flown Aluminum Overcast and Yankee Lady for magazine articles–the guys do a great job of keeping them airborne. The record up until now of these aircraft on tour has been superb–only in hindsight is the FAA now worried. Was the FAA wrong THEN, or is it wrong NOW?

    To protect the “unaware public”, perhaps the Warbird community should take a page from the Skydiving Tandem Jump operators. Rather than just sign a waiver, most Tandem jump operators require the prospective Tandem jumper to watch a video. Far from glamorizing the Tandem jump, they read off a litany of things that CAN go wrong. Far from making it look glamorous, they use actors that often look “odd”. In short, they lay it out straight–“Participating in this activity is DANGEROUS–IT MAY INJURE OR KILL YOU!” There is no question of “protecting the unaware public” after watching that video and signing the paper. As of a few years ago, there had not been a successful claim against Tandem jumping. Perhaps Paul can elaborate on what is being done in Tandem jumping today.

    Did pointing out (or even emphasizing) the danger hurt Tandem jumping? An emphatic NO–but it certainly provides a good defense–and it certainly has allowed thousands of people to experience something they have always wanted to do by inoculating the providers against the “nanny state.”

    • Jim,

      I believe you are on the right track. Seeing Bill Booth with his ZZ-Top beard looking straight at the camera and saying in a calm voice, “skydiving can kill you”, well, it’s hard to tell a jury you weren’t informed after seeing that.

      Regular skydiving has similar waivers and warnings, and even goes so far as to say they will sue YOU (or your survivors) if you try to sue the drop-zone. I know of one case where this was successfully prosecuted. That particular DZ spent more money than they’d ever hope to recover, but wanted to set a precedent that a countersuit would be filed and would win.

      All that being said – such waivers are no protection against *true* shoddy practices. Just because the customer signed a waiver doesn’t mean one can skimp on maintenance. The problem then comes down which side can better explain to a jury the difference between “inherent risk” and “negligence.”

    • Jim, Sorry but that first sentence is just not correct. It is 100% the fault of maintenance personnel. And those engines do not just last hundreds of hours, that is incorrect information. Sure, cylinders and other components are changed out regularly.
      These planes have crew chiefs that are “responsible” for the airplane’s operation. Someone knew what was rigged. And, BTW, no excuse for the plugs not even being gapped properly. That’s all you do on those engines, swap plugs, leads and mags. 50% of all round engine problems are ignition related. These planes need to keep flying, pilots and mechanics are volunteering their time just to be part of the experience and many “maintenance guys” are not even rated. I’m not making that up and I’ve seen it with my own eyes. It’s a lot of fun and good camaraderie. It’s a privilege to be part of such an operation and the show must go on. Unfortunately it’s coming to an end and rightfully so, in my opinion.

  5. Yep, enough is enough. I was part of these programs some years ago and have first hand knowledge of “how it goes”. Also i am guilty of piloting those airplanes with paying pax whilst knowing that there may be issues. Taking your buddies for a ride in a vintage aircraft is one thing but charging people for the privilege when you know that reliability cannot be reasonably guaranteed is another. I flew paying pax on DC-3s 45 years ago. And it was dicey then. Nothing has changed since taht time. Same engines, same parts, same “fixes” and guess what… Less proficient pilots.

  6. I recall the Commemorative Air Force B-29 “FIFI” making a stop in Lincoln, Nebraska. One engine needed to be replaced. FIFI sat on the general aviation ramp at Lincoln for several weeks before the engine was pulled and replaced and runup tested on the aircraft. Spare parts for WWII aircraft are not easy to come by.

  7. I was a pilot at TWA from 1964-1990. TWA retired its last piston aircraft (Constellation) in April, 1967. The mechanics that worked on those giant piston engines soon lost those piston skills to work on the big jets, a very different maintenance world. Plus, while the giant piston airplanes were around there was an abundant stock of parts. Also, the Connies and Martins were not war machines.

  8. The problems the FAA are citing Collings Foundation is poor maintenance, poor record-keeping of maintenance performed, and maintenance people unaware of operational procedures/requirements of the LHFE program. The FAA’s refusal to reissue the LHFE program to Collings is based on all of the above. Consent given to fly on any LHFE assumes that the warbird owner(s) are following FAA mandated LHFE requirements.

    I believe there is more to this story. The FAA has released SOME of their reasons for refusing to reissue the exemption but not all. Nor has the Collings Foundation responded. This situation is like a divorce. There are two sides to the story with truth somewhere in between.

    The maintenance evidence thus far presented does not look good for Collings. However, there is a certain amount of trust in performing aircraft maintenance expected. The question is how do you ensure that? FAA rules and regulations try to ensure compliance. But those rules and regulations cannot guarantee that an individual will not perform sloppy work. Another question is what did the pilots know about the condition of those two engines before take-off? It has been determined that there was some kind of maintenance performed on those engines prior to flight. Were the engines in question making full rated take-off power? Or were they making enough power to satisfy the pilots for a quick local flight with further maintenance when back on the ground? Ultimately, the PIC is responsible for determining the airworthiness of the airplane. The FAA has not released all that they know about these questions.

    Evidence of engine detonation shows that timing was far enough off to reveal some engine damage. We don’t know the extent of that detonation damage. Any signs of that is certainly not good. Fouled plugs, weak or non-existent spark, loose P-leads, spark plugs improperly gapped, worn cam followers, and magneto points out of limits has nothing to do with the chronological age of the engine. Don’t care for your new IO-550 the same way? You get the same results. Parts and their condition thus far cited by the FAA are normal, relatively common found items.

    Is this the type of maintenance performed and seen on other Collings warbirds? Is there a pattern of slipshod maintenance through out the Collings Foundation’s other airplanes? We know none of this information.

    The Collings Foundation has had a reputation for award winning restorations. None-O-Nine had been flying passengers regularly for decades prior to the accident flight. Prior to this accident, it has always appeared to me the organization has been top notched in all that it has done regarding the preservation/restoration of historical warbirds. The FAA has had a verifiable history of proper LHFE compliance by the Collings Foundation for decades. And, if the corrections are made as per the FAA LHFE program requirements, it appears the Colllings Foundation could get it back.

    Was the overall series of maintenance procedures and pilot decisions leading to the crash of Nine-O-Nine something indicative of the overall culture of the Collings Foundation? I would like to think no. But it is clear mechanically, there were several serious maintenance issues on the two engines in question. Time will tell.

  9. If allowed to stand, this is likely the end of available rides in historic aircraft–and perhaps some NON-Aeronautical activities.
    If ANYTHING goes wrong, there will be the usual finger-pointing and chant of “SOMEBODY should have seen this!”
    Insurance companies will decline to insure the aircraft–and we will be left with no flying examples–with the possible exception of those transferred to a foreign country to escape the U.S. “Nanny State.”

    These aircraft are NOT as reliable as today’s transports. When they were built, they were “cutting edge”–new designs–engine technology pushing it limits, and engine failures were common. They were “good enough” for expectations at the time–most combat aircraft were expected to last only a couple of hundred hours.
    Contrast these primitive piston-pounders with the turbine reliability today–you will never approach that reliability with piston engines. Does that mean that operation for hire (or even NOT for hire) of all piston powered aircraft should be banned?

    Collings Foundation had an enviable safety record prior to this accident. It’s hard to believe that their “Corporate Culture” changed to “allow” this to happen–sometimes, accidents DO happen–a faulty part–mismanaged operation of an engine between maintenance events–or a repairman that just didn’t get the procedure right. This shouldn’t be the end of the right of people to experience the flight of older aircraft–even when they have acknowledged the danger. We should be free to take known risks by acknowledging them–whether in riding in old aircraft, doing aerobatics, skydiving, or rock climbing. Leave the Bureaucrats and Barristers out of our lives!

    • There’s a big difference between discussing whether the time has come to end warbird passenger flights and the keyboard warriors who solve what happened and assign or absolve blame before the smoke has cleared.

  10. At an air show in the early 1980s, “Nine-O-Nine” did a media flight and returned early trailing a lot of smoke from one engine. Afterwards, the air show organizer asked the pilot what happened and he said big pieces came off the engine. When asked how big, he said big enough to have serial numbers.

    What’s often forgotten is that these aircraft and their engines were designed to a service life, not a fail-safe. For example, the Lancaster’s expected life was just 14 missions. It was simply not cost-effective in wartime to make them much more durable. Expecting 75-plus-year-old aircraft to be as safe as modern ones (MAX excepted) is totally unrealistic.

    I also think that while a waiver might absolve or reduce the operator’s legal liability, it won’t deter very many customers. Short of hiring ex-bootcamp DIs to scream in the faces of potential passengers “YOU MIGHT DIE, MAGGOT!!” before they hand over their money, most people will blithely assume “It can’t/won’t happen to me” and will go anyway. How can they possibly know how well-maintained the aircraft is? There’s a level of trust conferred by the operating certificate and it certainly looks like that trust was not justified in this case.

    • A Lancaster’s expected life was 14 missions, not necessarily because it lacked robust design in parts or engineering, it had a great deal to do with being SHOT AT from the ground and from the air, almost each time it went out on a mission, often for extended periods, and the statistical probability of being shot down, or the ship being so badly damaged it wasn’t worth the labor cost to rebuild, factored in to produce a low number like 14 missions.

  11. There’s a lot of talk about these radial engines going 200 hrs max? I have flown behind 1340’s and 985’s and although its not a jet engine it is fairly reliable with a tbo of around 1200 to 1400 hrs. With that said it takes good maint. and upkeep to make it there. Synthetic oils and the like have vastly improved since 1942. With this B17 it is obvious that maint. was lacking, it was not loaded to gross weight+ with a load of 500 bombs and probably would have made it with 1 engine failure but not 2. These planes are only as good as there upkeep. As the old saying goes…If you don’t schedule maint. it will schedule it for you.