The Crash Of The Nine-O-Nine

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I got home from a short trip Wednesday evening and flipped on the television right at 6:30 p.m. NBC was leading with the crash of the Collings Foundation’s B-17, the Nine-O-Nine, at Bradley Airport in Connecticut. It’s never a good thing when the national news leads with a general aviation crash and even worse when it displaces the chaotic news coming out of Washington.

I’m not interested in speculating about the cause of this crash. The NTSB will figure that out in due course. I was a little taken aback by the reaction to the reaction, however, and I think it’s worthy of comment. Within hours of the crash, Connecticut’s Governor Ned Lamont and Sen. Richard Blumenthal held a press conference. My Facebook feed ignited with a vitriolic and occasionally obscene denunciation of this, claiming that Blumenthal had called for the grounding of all warbirds. If he said it, I can’t find the quote now.

Understandably, pilots would be rightfully provoked by such a rash statement ill-informed by anything resembling knowledge or disclosed fact. We all get that. But there’s a risk here, too, that our innate knowledge and experience with such things gives rise to a circle-the-wagons groupthink, blinding us to things we would rather not accept. Personally, I try to tune this out no matter who says what until the investigation has done its fact finding.

I have firsthand experience with the Collings Foundation. I flew in the organization’s P-51 once and for many years, two or three of the airplanes made stops at my home base, Venice, during their winter tours. As a volunteer, I helped with parking, errands and other minor jobs.

The Collings visit was always a high point and well received locally, with good press in print and broadcast. It’s quite moving to see a World War II veteran standing lost in thought on the ramp before a B-17 or B-24. Those days are dwindling for obvious reasons. The Collings tours are living heritage and worthy of the time and effort that goes into them.

In my experience, Collings appears to be as organized and as cautious about its aircraft operations as it’s possible to be. But it’s not getting any easier or cheaper to maintain 75-year-old airplanes in safe, airworthy condition. No matter how diligent flight organizations are, there can be lapses and oversights, which is why those of us in aviation—especially those of us in aviation—owe it to ourselves keep an open mind after an accident like this.

And be honest about the risks of flying in such aircraft. While the age of these airplanes is not of itself necessarily relevant, they are military aircraft and in a different universe than the typical conception most people have of large airplanes: a modern airliner. While the warbird community as a whole has a good safety record, accidents do happen. During the past 25 years, for example, 20 P-51s have been involved in accidents, half of them with fatalities. On the other hand, the Collings Nine-O-Nine labored 20 years as a fire bomber without incident. Nothing is inevitable.

For the moment, Collings has stood down. I hope they resume operations soon. Without trying too hard, you can find examples of many of these airplanes tastefully displayed in museums, their flying days long since passed into static retirement. There will come a point in the future where the living history these aircraft represent won’t be sustainable by flying them directly to the people who thrill to the sight and sound. A forthright investigation is the best way to assure that day hasn’t arrived yet. 

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32 COMMENTS

  1. I was completely taken aback by the lack of communication from the pilot to the controller. The pilot never actually asked for priority handling nor mentioned anything severe was happening on board. Not saying that would have made a difference in this instance but communication does sound very casual when listening to it on LiveATC. Terrible accident with terrible results.

    • A sooner-initiated turn from the downwind of runway 6 would have put the plane on the ground beyond the runway 6 threshhold. With two miles of pavement available, why fly a pattern that offers ANY chance of landing short of the threshhold?

      Better yet, a simple 90-degree left turn from the left downwind of runway 6 would have put the aircraft on final for runway 15 – ABOVE the asphalt, and with half of the altitude loss of making a 180-degree turn.

    • I agree that this seems unusual, but just like Paul stated about pilots judging the press, we likewise should be circumspect about assessing pilot/crew performance and decision-making. Flying for 26 years in the Air Force, emergency training always and continuously stressed that you: “Aviate, Navigate & Communicate”. There’s a reason communication is last on the list. Those of us that have survived a crash from a malfunctioning aircraft spend many hours questioning what and how we could have done it better. That said, a pilot flying a mechanically crippled aircraft at low altitude will have substantially less performance capability and altitude to work with. They certainly had their hands full and may not have been able to consider the “normal options”.

    • Mark, et al: Your thoughts and comments all make perfect sense from a smaller airplane / training problem perspective. Once you get into the bigger airplane / multi-motor arena, things change somewhat, especially when things go south in a hurry. I am sure that the NTSB will quite accurately determine what actually happened and present a fairly reasonable explanation of why it all went so “south” so fast.
      Now, please do not think that I am demeaning your personal abilities behind the yoke or whatever your experience is. I happen to have 20K hours in large multi-motors, almost all jet. I do happen to have 2K hours in the T-29C/D (CV-240) with the USAF. During one hot summer morning departure from Buckley ANGB in CO in that T-29, we had a very bad seizure of the left engine. It stopped turning in less that 1 revolution. Things got really exciting for about 10 minutes. In those days, Stapleton was there and operational. We crossed that airport at about 50-60 ft agl, just slid over the terminal and eventually got back to Buckley safely for a dual engine change, a couple of other small structural repairs, and a new set of skivvies. The point of that story is that, while ATC was screaming at us, we didn’t hear them or respond other than a very curt / crude STFU transmission until we could breathe after passing over the terminal. We were not task saturated, we were massively overloaded mentally. With respect, I offer that the NTSB will possibly pose something along those lines to explain the lack of comm between the airplane and ATC.

      Today’s aircraft are, thankfully, extremely reliable thus, training has evolved into fairly straight forward single item at a time problem solving. Multiple emergency training is now a no-no, however, multiple simultaneous actual emergencies are not, for some strange reason, forbidden in reality… Not saying that that was the case here, but I will wager a large cup of good Wawa coffee that these pilots had their hands full and didn’t have (mental) time to spend talking on the radio or seeing the obvious easy ways to get back on the ground safely.
      Just my opinion.

      • Modern does not apply. I’ve watched enough WWII footage to understand that I really don’t want to be in a B29 or a B17 having a landing accident. Declare and then own the airport. Hearing the hesitation on frequency (with a load of passengers and a load of fuel) just seemed odd considering the aircraft being flown. Maybe the problem accelerated really quickly? dunno. Sad to loose good people & planes.

      • T-29s out of Buckley ? Now you’re showing your age ! Was that with the Guard there ? I used to fly helos from the other side of the field there in the late eighties and early nineties and even that feels like a thousand years ago.

        • “… the late eighties and early nineties and even that feels like a thousand years ago.”

          Geezus! I got my instrument rating there in 1972 (flying an ADF approach to the old Stapleton) … I guess that makes me a card carrying registered fossil !! 🙂

  2. Paul,

    I couldn’t agree more.

    I’m old enough to remember when a privately owned Sabre Jet crashed into a Sacramento ice cream parlor in 1972. California immediately forbade the operation of private military jets in the state. The GA community was upset, but it exercised restraint. The subsequent investigation revealed glaring deficiencies in the training, oversight and type certification of some warbird operators. That these issues were addressed in a timely manner is the reason we continue to enjoy warbird demonstrations four decades later – including in California.

    Today it may be time to take another look at warbird revenue operations. Their designers expected a third of these airplanes to be lost in combat and, maybe, 20% to be lost in accidents. There was a war in progress and getting them off of the drawing board and into the theater was the most urgent requirement. None of the heavier designs remotely meets contemporary certification standards.

  3. Sure is a lot of black smoke from that fire. It doesn’t look like burning gasoline to me. It looks like burning jet fuel. One wonders. Could they have been given the wrong fuel. That sure would explain some things.

    • Any rich mixture combustion will produce black smoke. That said, a fuel problem crossed my mind as well. Hard to have any other kind of common-power problem on a four-engine aircraft. During the war, I’m sure plenty of B-17s made it home on three engines or less. So a problem with one engine doesn’t explain the accident.

  4. >>Within hours of the crash, Connecticut’s Governor Ned Lamont and Sen. Richard Blumenthal held a press conference. My Facebook feed ignited with a vitriolic and occasionally obscene denunciation of this, claiming that Blumenthal had called for the grounding of all warbirds. If he said it, I can’t find the quote now.

    Blumenthal definitely said it. I saw the footage. I had the same reaction as many of your inbox fillers, that it was a statement not based on any facts. Foolish, to be polite.

  5. I have a different take on Sen. Richard Blumenthal’s conference. I’m not sure I heard him actually call for the grounding of all warbirds in so many words. What I DID hear was a self-serving “politic-speak/stump speech” about “I have ordered the NTSB to start an investigation” and “they report to MY committee”.

    Just in case the Senator is reading this – you could have made all the calls you want – but they were going to investigate anyway. But that’s their job.

    Against a rapidly developing situation with a clear potential for loss of life Sen. Richard Blumenthal sounded SO “self-serving Washington-speak” – that believe me – if he was my Senator – there is no way in h3ll I would ever vote for him again.

    • “I’m not sure I heard him [Blumenthal] actually call for the grounding of all warbirds in so many words.”
      Well, here’s a direct quote from Senator Stolen Valor:
      “There should be very serious scrutiny over these planes before they’re allowed back in the air.”
      Little ambiguity, IMWO.

  6. David, T, is right on the money; the enormous cloud of black Smoke is a big clue. Gasoline burns clean and jet fuel will give oodles of Black smoke. Hopefully, there will be photos from people that saw the plane as it came in to land. A lady that saw the plane fly over her house said that one propeller was not turning.
    No matter, the B-17’s could withstand head-on cannon and machine gun fire, at close range, and not even cough no’r did the young 20 year old pilots even blink. Something really bad had to have happened to bring this B-17 down. RIP, to the passengers and crew.

    • 909 was on the second flight of the day with that load of fuel. Normally, the airplane is fueled and preflighted before the ride flights, and “hot loaded”, exchanging passengers with engines running for multiple flights. So misfuelling isn’t possible. They lost one engine and feathered it, but that alone isn’t sufficient to bring down a B17, so something else must have been happening.

  7. I have always believed that these old warbirds belong in museums for historical value and in memory of those who flew them for a really good reason. Are we one day going to entertain fully restored and flying B-1s, B-2s, B-58s, SR-71s, restored and sailing nuclear submarines, and so forth?

    • I disagree. There are plenty of examples of non-flying versions of these aircraft on display in museums throughout the country (and even the world). Many of the flying Warbirds do not have true historical significance because they’re typically late production models that came too late to see active duty or they were practically “rebuilt” from the ground up. Furthermore, I suspect that without the ability to be flown, many of these flying warbirds would never have been recovered and restored in the first place. Keeping a historic aircraft out of the air on static display or in storage somewhere is also no guarantee of infinite preservation since fires and natural disasters can destroy them as well.

      Having these aircraft grace the skies and teaching younger generations how to operate and maintain them is as much or more significant to their history than having them simply collect dust in a museum.

  8. The question of when to stop flying these increasingly rare machines is a difficult one to answer. There were over 12,700 B-17s built. Reports vary, but somewhere between 9 and 17 are still in flying condition. In the case of the 17, there are many more on static display, so it may make sense to keep the airworthy ones flying. But, at some point, they become so rare that exposing them to flight may be too risky. The Commemorative Air Force lost one of only 2 or 3 flying B-26 Marauders some years ago. With so few remaining even in museums, the truly rare ones deserve to be grounded for posterity sake.

    The loss of 909 is tragic, both from the loss of the airframe and the souls on board that perished. My prayers go out to the families as well as the “family” that kept 909 flying.

  9. A quarter of all deaths in RAF bomber command during the Second World War were training accidents. Heavy bombers of the time were, and are not, easy to fly. It is something today’s pilots and passengers should remember.

  10. As the Collings Foundation B-25 got ready to depart BDL, they had a few words of thanks and remembrance for Nine O Nine. Links aren’t allowed in posts, so go to YouTube and search on “9g5TTGTuATA”. It’s the VASA Aviation link. It’s quite touching.

  11. Whether we like it or not insurance companies will probably have the final say if these flights continue or not. Many years ago I paid for and got a right seat ride in a B-25 and enjoyed every second of it. Not long after the owner stopped giving passenger rides due to lack of affordable insurance coverage. It would be a real shame if these kind of flights were stopped/banned. Maybe a solution is a waiver similar to what skydivers sign to be able to jump at most drop zones. May those who lost their lives on that flight RIP.

  12. These planes are”self supported” because parts are not available.
    That means that parts are being made up and patched and installed and maintained on a tight budget.
    You have a very large, complex, ancient, self-repaired aircraft being filled up with hundreds of gallons of AvGas; and then flying paying passengers. It’s high-risk no matter how you slice it.

  13. These old warbirds teach us of a time young men went to war to save freedom. They flew them with terrible losses, unimaginable courage, and dedication. The younger generations do not comprehend the sacrifices required to permit them to live as they wish. This history is now taught in a sanitized manner for various reasons. I live near an airport and each year the warbirds fly into it. The sound they make and their sight flying over my house can never be forgotten. We need to learn to balance safety, with resource management, and maintenance to keep these warbirds in public view. We cannot forsake their history and their brave crews.