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FAA says owner of WWII bomber that crashed at Bradley, killing 7, can no longer carry passengers

David Owens, The Hartford Courant on

Published in News & Features

HARTFORD, Conn. -- The Federal Aviation Administration, citing safety concerns, has revoked the Collings Foundation's permission to carry passengers aboard its historic aircraft, one of which crashed and burned at a Connecticut airport in October, killing seven.

The World War II B-17G bomber Nine O Nine developed engine trouble shortly after takeoff from Bradley International Airport on Oct. 2 and crashed as the pilot tried to nurse the crippled aircraft back to the airport. Five passengers who paid $450 each to fly aboard the historic aircraft, the pilot and the co-pilot were killed in the resulting crash and fire.

Four passengers and the flight's crew chief survived, although some suffered serious burns.

In a decision released Wednesday, Robert C. Carty, the FAA's deputy executive director of flight service standards, found that there were problems with two of the aircraft's four engines and that the Collings Foundation did not follow the requirements of its permission to operate the aircraft and carry passengers and "lacked a safety culture when operating the B-17G."

Collings spokesman Hunter Chaney did not respond to an emailed request for comment Wednesday evening.

Collings, of Stow, Mass., has operated a variety of historic aircraft for three decades and toured the country with what it called its "Wings of Freedom" tour. It has made dozens of stops in Connecticut over the years, including the stop at Bradley in the fall. The organization brought five World War II aircraft, including the B-17, a B-24J Liberator bomber, a P-51 Mustang fighter, a P-40 Warhawk fighter and a B-25 Mitchell bomber on Sept. 30 for several days of ground tours and morning and evening flights aboard the B-17 and B-24. Collings charged $450 for "living history flight experiences" on its bombers.

The FAA decision revokes the permission Collings had obtained to offer flights for pay, and denies the organization's request to extend that permission for 10 aircraft it owns, including a B-17 it obtained to replace the one that crashed at Bradley.

Less than two weeks after the crash at Bradley, the Collings Foundation appealed to its supporters to voice their support for its application to the FAA to be able to continue to carry passengers on its aircraft.

The permission Collings operated under required it to comply with specific conditions, and the FAA found that it "was not fulfilling several requirements" or satisfying its policy of maintaining "a culture of safety."

The crew chief aboard the flight that crashed had not been trained for his role and told FAA investigators he was "unaware of basic information concerning operations." Instead, he received on-the-job training, according to the decision.

Collings did not comply with its own "safety management system," the crew chief was not aware a safety and risk management program existed and Collings "failed to maintain and apply on a continuous basis a safety and risk management program that met or exceeded ... FAA policy."

The FAA also found "notable maintenance discrepancies existed with the B-17G, yet the Collings director of maintenance signed inspection records -- dated as recently as Sept. 23, 2019 -- indicating no findings of discrepancies." Collings' maintenance director was Ernest McCauley, 75, who was the chief pilot the day of the crash.

"Collings did not have a structure to ensure adequate oversight of his decisions to conduct passenger-carrying operations such as the October 2 flight," the FAA decision reads. "This indicates Collings lacked a safety culture when operating the B-17G."

An inspection of the bomber's engines found problems significant enough to cause the FAA to question "whether the engines were inspected adequately and in accordance with the applicable maintenance requirements."

Specifically, the inspection found that magneto and ignition failures existed in the aircraft's No. 4 engine. Magnetos, engine-driven electrical generators that produce voltage to fire the engine's spark plugs, were not functioning properly. An attempt to jury-rig one had left it inoperative, according to the report. A second magneto on the No. 4 engine, when tested, produced a weak or no spark to four of the nine cylinders it was supposed to fire.

 

Inspectors also found that all spark plugs required cleaning and that all of the electrode gaps were out of tolerance. Further engine inspection "indicated signs of detonation and associated damage," the decision reads.

An inspection of the No. 3 engine showed "all spark plug electrode gaps were out of tolerance, fouled, and revealed various signs of detonation." Inspection of the engine also revealed problems with the cylinders, according to the report.

"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 decision reads.

On the day of the crash, the flight crew radioed the Bradley tower that it needed to return to the airport, according to a National Transportation Safety Board preliminary report issued about two weeks after the crash.

"The controller then asked for the reason for the return to the airport, and the pilot replied that the airplane had a 'rough mag' on the No. 4 engine." "Mag" is short for magneto.

The FAA said the discrepancies discovered during its inspection "indicate maintenance, or lack thereof, occurred in a manner contrary to maintaining the aircraft" in accordance with its general maintenance manual.

An inspection of maintenance records "lack key information and, in some cases, indicate maintenance was either not performed at all or was performed in a manner contrary to ... requirements."

Allowing the Collings Foundation to continue to carry passengers aboard its aircraft "would adversely affect safety," according to the decision. The FAA continues to gather facts, the decision reads, "that indicate Collings lacked a commitment to safety (and) did not take seriously its safety management system program."

The NTSB has not completed its final investigative report into the crash of the Collings B-17 at Bradley.

Collings can appeal the FAA finding if it can show it has additional facts, the FAA made a factual error or the FAA did not correctly interpret the law.

(c)2020 The Hartford Courant (Hartford, Conn.)

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