Having survived combat and oftentimes years of neglect, flying warbirds in America and their owners may be headed into a new battle. Triggered by Wednesday’s fatal crash of the Collings Foundation B-17 Nine-O-Nine at Bradley International Airport, Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal says more scrutiny is needed for passenger flights on historic aircraft.
Seven people were killed and six others on the airplane injured along with two people on the ground when the Nine-O-Nine crashed shortly after takeoff. The Flying Fortress was to make a 30-minute fly-around the area during the foundation’s Wings of Freedom Tour that started earlier in the week.
Responding to a question about whether the B-17s should be grounded, Sen. Blumenthal was non-comital but suggested it might be time for a second look at warbird flights for the general public.
“There is a need for scrutiny and oversight if these planes are going to continue to fly,” he said. “This is not the first.”
A history of the Nine-Oh-Nine on the website warbirdregistry.org shows that shortly after the foundation acquired it, it had a crash landing in Pennsylvania in 1987. It was repaired and restored by 1991 and flew uneventfully until a landing gear collapsed causing damage to the airplane in 1995.
But the last accident (involving a different B-17) in which passengers were injured was in June 2011. After hosting heritage flights in Aurora, Illinois, a Flying Fortress owned by the Liberty Foundation was moving to Indianapolis when a fire erupted on one of the engines. In the emergency landing, one of the seven people on board was hurt. The plane was destroyed.
Organizations big enough and with sufficient funds to restore, maintain and operate warbirds include the Liberty Foundation and Collings, along with the Experimental Aircraft Association, the Commemorative Air Force and Erickson Aircraft Collection and others.
The goal of organizations like these is to share the cold, noisy, turbulent experience of wartime pilots – many of whom knew when they took off they might not return.
“The crews were 18-year-old young men. If you made it to 25 in a B-17 they called you ‘gramps’, you were one of the old guys,” said Dick Knapinski a spokesman for the EAA which sells flights on its own B-17, the Aluminum Overcast. “That’s why these groups take these airplanes out and spend thousands of thousands of dollars to preserve and maintain them and fly them to places, so we can tell the story.”
Operators of historic aircraft can operate under a number of different FAA regulations. Some under Part 91 for general aviation, others, like EAA, under part 135.
Then there are the rules that apply to “limited category aircraft.” When I asked to see the regulations that apply to the operation of surplus military aircraft, the FAA sent me a 192-page document. Under these rules, operators may be prohibited from selling flights and so they offer them in exchange for a donation. But suffice to say that sorting through the maze of regulations is not for the faint of heart.
Among aviation enthusiasts, Blumenthal’s comment is worrying. Heritage flights generate interest and revenue. A quick search told me that the Collings Foundation had $8 million in revenue and $7 million in expenses in 2015.
“The Collings Foundation is a major operator of warbirds and they make appearances at air shows around the country,” said Dean Alexander, former superintendent of the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park. “They sell rides on historic airplanes as a way of raising money to keep their operations going.”
Still, historic aircraft and specifically combat aircraft served a far different purpose than airliners do. A century of commercial air travel brings with it improvements in survivability that are not to be found on warbirds.
“In an inflight fire with an aluminum airplane, it doesn’t take long to burn through,” Jerry O’Neill, a member of the safety committee with the International Council of Air Shows told me when I spoke with him about the B-17 crash.
“The rule is to get it down no matter where you put it down, whether you make a runway or a field because if the wing comes off you’re toast anyway.”
Whether passengers on heritage flights appreciate the difference in safety, I can’t say, so I turned to Mark Dombroff, an aviation attorney formerly with the FAA for his opinion.
“Common sense should tell anybody that gets on an airplane that’s been restored from the ground up that it’s not the same as getting on an airliner that takes you from point A to point B. They cannot have the expectation of the same level of safety.”
View NTSB video here.