Federal investigators will take a hard look at the possibility of restricting or banning rides for the public aboard World War II-era aircraft following the fiery crash of a restored B-17 "Flying Fortress" bomber in Connecticut last week that killed seven and injured eight.
"That is something we will look at down the road," National Transportation Safety Board member Jennifer Homendy said when asked whether the owners of vintage aircraft should be permitted to keep taking paying customers up for brief flights at airshows and heritage events.
"We're still at the very early stages of this investigation and we'll have to determine that at the appropriate time," Homendy said at an Oct. 4 news conference at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, where the B-17 crashed last Wednesday in an emergency landing attempt.
The NTSB is expected to make a preliminary report on the crash later this month, but recommendations on what actions the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) should take to ensure the safety of vintage aircraft flights will likely not be made for several months.
"Our mission is to determine what happened, why it happened and to prevent it from happening again," Homendy said. The B-17 that crashed was owned and operated by the Massachusetts-based Collings Foundation.
The record of previous fatal accidents involving heritage flights of World War II-era bombers will play a part in the current investigation, she said.
Since 1982, when the NTSB began tracking safety issues in the heritage flights, there have been a total of 21 accidents involving World War-II era bombers, resulting in 23 fatalities and one injury -- not counting the death toll last Tuesday, Homendy said.
Three of the previous accidents involved B-17G bombers of the same type that crashed at the Bradley airport, Homendy said. Currently, there are 16 B-17s registered to fly in the U.S., including the one that crashed in Connecticut, according to the NTSB.
"Every accident is different. We'll take a look at the history and make appropriate recommendations," Homendy said.
In response to the tragedy, the Collings Foundation announced that it was "suspending its flight operations and the Wings of Freedom Tour for the remainder of the 2019 season."
The various groups and foundations that seek to preserve and fly vintage aircraft profess safety as their primary concern in the display and flights of vintage aircraft that they see as a vital part of the nation's history.
However, vintage aircraft owner and aviation attorney Michael Slack said the FAA should consider keeping passengers off them.
"There's not a problem with these aircraft flying demonstrations and in tributes. We can continue to enjoy these aircraft from that perspective," said Slack, a former NASA engineer who owns a biplane P-6 Hawk military aircraft from the 1930s.
But, he said, there's a "legitimate risk" in taking passengers aboard.
"These airplanes were designed to do one thing -- deliver bombs and return. There was no incentive to create passenger-friendly aircraft," he said. Federal authorities, he added, should take "a serious look at simply ending taking up passengers" on heritage flights.
"Most WWII aircraft are now 70-plus years old since they were manufactured and the pool of pilots with the skills to fly these planes diminishes daily," said Slack. "The maintenance on these aircraft also requires special skills and knowledge, and replacement parts are very difficult to find and are often fabricated."
In addition, "vintage aircraft are not equipped with modern technology to prevent post-impact fires and fuel dispersal," he said.
"When I fly my [P-6], I know I'm putting myself at some risk," Slack said.
As a lawyer, Slack is currently representing a plaintiff in a civil suit against the owners of a vintage twin-prop C-47 Skytrain, the military version of the DC-3, that crashed and burned on takeoff in July 2018 in Burnet, Texas. The plaintiff suffered burns as a passenger on the C-47, Slack said.
The vintage aircraft are exempt from the rules for commercial aircraft requiring the safety features that have been developed since World War II, according to the FAA.
In a statement to Miitary.com, FAA officials said the vintage aircraft "are not eligible for sightseeing flights. They are only eligible for the 'Living History' Flights, which provide the passengers with an experience of what it was like to fly aboard these types of aircraft."
"Living History Flight Experience (LHFE) exemptions provide operators relief from several FAA regulations, allowing exemption holders to carry passengers for compensation or hire in 'historically significant' aircraft holding a limited or experimental airworthiness certificate," the FAA said.
The accidents involving vintage aircraft are not limited to bombers. In November 2018, a World War II-era P-51 Mustang fighter crashed into the parking lot of a housing complex in Fredericksburg, Texas. The pilot and a passenger, a World War II veteran, were killed, according to the NTSB.
In September 2011, a P-51 Mustang participating in the Reno Air Races in Nevada crashed into the crowd, killing the pilot and 10 spectators and injuring 69.
In statements last Friday, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, said the focus of the investigation should be the safety of future of vintage aircraft flights and whether they should be permitted to carry passengers.
The crash last Wednesday "has put this industry at an inflection point and the NTSB, plus the FAA, need to address the repeated and imminent dangers that have been demonstrated over the years," Blumenthal said.
"These planes are a profoundly significant part of our history and they should be revered and preserved but respected with adequate safety standards if they are going to be flown, and that's why a broader examination and investigation is absolutely necessary here," he said. "Not to say these planes need to be grounded, but they do need to be inspected and maintained and repaired with a frequency and intensity that guarantees their air trustworthiness."
At the news conference Homendy said the B-17, after the pilot reported an "issue with an engine," hit the approach lights about 1,000 feet from Runway 6 at Bradley International Airport while attempting to make an emergency landing.
The aircraft knocked over about 30 approach lights on breakaway poles before skidding off the runway into a de-icing plant and catching fire, Homendy said.
The B-17 that crashed in Connecticut had a crew of three and 10 passengers aboard. The pilot of the bomber, Ernest "Mac" McCauley, 75, of Long Beach, California, and the copilot, Michael Foster, 71, of Jacksonville, Florida, a retired Navy captain and naval aviator, were killed in the crash.
Both McCauley and Foster were flying the B-17 under exemptions granted by the FAA. Commercial pilots must retire at age 65, but pilots of vintage aircraft can keep flying as long as their medical certificate, training and testing are current, according to the FAA.
Homendy said McCauley had more than 7,300 hours flying B-17s and was believed to be the most experienced B-17 pilot in the U.S.
The others killed in the crash were passengers: David Broderick, 56, of West Springfield, Massachusetts; Robert Rubner, 64, of Tolland, Connecticut; Gary Mazzone, 66, of Broad Brook, Connecticut; James Roberts, 48, of Ludlow, Massachusetts; and Robert Riddell, 59, of East Granby, Connecticut.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.