The 75-year old California pilot in command of the B-17 Nine-O-Nine that crashed in Connecticut on Wednesday was the highest time pilot on that model aircraft in America with 73-hundred hours, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. Ernest McCauley, 75, of Long Beach, California was also the safety officer of the Collings Foundation, which owned the airplane since 1986 and operated it as part of its Wings of Freedom Tour.
Jennifer Homendy, the NTSB board member at the scene told reporters “a lot has been accomplished” during the investigators’ first full day at the scene at Bradley International Airport outside of Hartford. “We’ve requested a lot of documents, inspection and maintenance records for the propellers, airframe and engines,” she said. “Tomorrow we document and move the wreckage.”
McCauley and Michael Foster, the co-pilot from Jacksonville, Florida had just taken off with 10 passengers aboard when they reported engine trouble and circled to return back to the airport. The airplane hit the ground 1000 feet short of the runway threshold, Homendy said, before coming to rest atop a deicing shed.
The investigation into the factors that contributed to the loss of the four-engine, WW2-era bomber is certain to include more than just what happened and why.
Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal, a member of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has asked the board to include in its probe, an analysis of the rules that allow nonprofit organizations like Collings to take passengers up on historic aircraft.
“There seems to be a gray area under the law relating to the oversight and scrutiny of these vintage planes that are flown by nonprofit foundations,” the Senator told me.
Blumenthal is referring to the fact that operators of vintage airplanes aka limited category special airworthiness certificate holders – and there are dozens of them in the United States – can either fly under Part 91 as general aviation or under Part 135 rules which allow fare-paying passengers with stricter requirements.
“How robust in practice are the oversight and scrutiny provisions that apply to them? That’s one question that’s both legal and factual,” Blumenthal said. “I’ve asked them to make these issues part of the investigation and recommendations they eventually make and I’m going to be doing my own investigation into both the legal adequacy of current regulations and the practical effectual adequacy of them.”
Blumenthal’s comments caused a commotion among many in the aviation community. Some suggested the Senator was seeking to ground the airplane. But Blumenthal says that’s not his intention.
“Let me emphasize, I am not advocating that these planes be grounded only that they be made safe, properly inspected and upgraded when necessary.”
At the Thursday evening press conference, Homendy made it clear that investigators are already trying to quantify the scope of safety events on the B-17 and other bombers still in operation.
“The NTSB has investigated 21 accidents involving WW2 era bombers. Three were B-17Gs but that does not include this accident”, Homendy said. “Of the 21, that resulted in 23 fatalities and one injury.”
Meanwhile, the names of the people who died in the accident were released. Besides the pilots mentioned above, the others were identified as:
David Broderick and James Roberts of Massachusetts and Gary Mazzone, Robert Riddell and Robert Rubner of Connecticut.