Profiles began to emerge Thursday of the 13 people aboard a World War II B-17G bomber that crashed Wednesday morning at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks.
The pilot of the bomber, Ernest “Mac” McCauley, 75, of Long Beach, Calif., was described by a National Transportation Safety Board investigator as the most experienced B-17 pilot in the nation. The co-pilot, Michael Foster, 71, of Jacksonville, Fla., had been flying for more than 50 years. Both men died in the crash.
The others who died in the crash were identified as David Broderick, 56, of West Springfield, Mass., who worked at Collins Aerospace in Windsor Locks; Robert Rubner, 64, of Tolland; Gary Mazzone, 66, of Broad Brook; James Roberts, 48, of Ludlow, Mass.; and Robert Riddell, 59, of East Granby.
Those injured in the crash were identified as Andy Barrett, 36, of South Hadley, Mass.; James Traficante, 54, and Joseph “JT” Huber, 48, both of Simsbury; Linda Schmidt, 62, and Tom Schmidt, 62, both of Suffield; and flight engineer Mitchell Melton, 34, of Dalhart, Texas. Andrew Sullivan, 28, of Enfield, is an airport employee who was injured when the airplane hit a deicing facility.
The passengers came from Connecticut and Massachusetts. Some had a passion for history, and relished the opportunity to fly aboard the type of bomber that helped the Allies defeat the Nazis in World War II. The bomber was owned by the Collings Foundation of Stow, Mass. There were 10 passengers and three crew members on board.
‘A very experienced pilot and mechanic’
Ernest “Mac” McCauley, 75, had 7,300 hours of flight time on the B-17, according to NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy. That made McCauley the most experienced B-17 pilot in the nation.
He’d been flying for Wings of Freedom for 20 years, Homendy said, and was also the safety officer for the Collings Foundation, which sends its airplanes around the country as part of its Wings of Freedom tour.
Reaction to McCauley’s death was swift in the tight-knit community that flies vintage aircraft.
“An organization like this is even tighter” than the wider community of pilots, said Eric Whyte, a fellow Wings of Freedom Tour pilot and a friend and protégé of McCauley’s.
Whyte said in a social media post that McCauley was a former football player “who took pride in being a curmudgeon, liked to laugh at millennials but [had] a soft spot for animals. Especially dogs. He would often sneak away from the tour and visit animal shelters to walk the dogs since being on the road he couldn’t have one of his own.”
And McCauley had a rule, Whyte said: “no selfies in the cockpit.”
Whyte said he and McCauley had a “friendly banter about whose airplane was better. He was a B-17 guy I was a B-24 … As a very experienced pilot and mechanic, I often picked his brain about the airplanes and he was happy to help … The first time I flew with him I couldn’t get the parking brake to release. We had clearance to taxi and no matter what, I couldn’t get the parking brake off. Mac looked over and laughed and said, ‘You know we aren’t going anywhere until you get that figured out.’ Both of us were laughing as I finally got it to release.”
As Whyte wished his friend godspeed, he said it’s been a tough day.
“Blue Skies and tailwinds guys,” Whyte said. “It was an honor to fly with you.”
‘The best person I’ve ever known’
Rob Riddell, 59, of East Granby, had a deep interest in World War II going back to his childhood, said his wife Debra.
When he was younger, he restored a 1942 Willys Jeep, and was restoring a Jeep pedal car for his 17-month-old grandson, Zachary Robert, his wife said. “He was going to paint it and do the markings to match his military vehicle,” she said.
On Facebook, Debra Riddell wrote: “Rob was the best person I’ve ever known. He was my soul mate. I will miss him beyond words can ever express. He loved his children more than anyone could know and the new grandson was the apple of his eye. He embraced my daughter and grandchildren and loved them as his own. He was brilliant, loving, funny, reliable, compassionate and the best man I’ve ever known. The world lost an amazing person today.”
“I think the hardest part is Zack will never know him,” she said.
Rob Riddell was extremely smart and funny, endearing and warm, she said. When he laughed, it was a belly laugh. “If you met him, you liked him,” she said.
Rob Riddell’s deep interest in World War II history was a big part of his life, his wife said.
For their honeymoon, the Riddells traveled to Hawaii so Rob could visit Pearl Harbor, his wife said. For a 60th birthday celebration, they planned a trip to Normandy, so that Rob could view the beaches where Allied soldiers stormed ashore on D-Day to begin to wrest control of Europe from the Nazis.
The trip aboard the B-17 was on his bucket list, and Debra Riddell was at Bradley to capture video of the special experience. “This was something he really wanted to do,” she said.
Rob Riddell and the others boarded the airplane and were secured into seats in the fuselage.
The crew had trouble getting an engine to start. At one point one of the pilots got off the airplane to examine an engine.
“My husband texted, ‘This doesn’t bode well, the pilot shut off the engine and has left his seat,’” she said. “I texted him back, ‘they’re working on it.’”
She said she wondered later whether her husband was concerned about getting to fly or the integrity of the airplane. “It was one of those two,” she said. “I don’t know what way to take it.”
By the time all four engines on the bomber were turning, the flight was about 40 minutes behind its scheduled takeoff time, she said.
“I told him I loved him,” she said. “They started to taxi away and everything appeared to be OK.”
The bomber took off on the far side of the airport and Debra Riddell said she could not see the aircraft as it was taking off. “As it came to the very end of the runway I saw the plane for a very brief moment,” she said. “I expected the airplane to be at a higher elevation than it was.”
Debra Riddell said she and others who were waiting to board another Collings Foundation flight were looking for the airplane expecting to see it higher in the sky. “And then I saw the plane skirt around from the south to approach the runway to land back at the airport,” she said. She saw the plane for a brief time. It then went behind a building.
“A few seconds later I heard a very loud noise and saw a fireball and smoke,” she said. “I couldn’t believe it had crashed.”
Debra Riddell said she and a friend of her husband’s who’d accompanied them to Bradley began to cry.
“I’m hysterical, I’m crying, I’m screaming,” she said. “And the people from TAC Air came and grabbed me and Rob’s friend Stan. Stan was holding me crying. Stan was crying.”
Staff for TAC Air, the fixed base operator at Bradley hosting the Collings airplanes, escorted her and her husband’s friend to a conference room. They remained there for an extended period. No one was giving them any information, she said. Meanwhile, she contacted family, including her husband’s ex-wife, who rushed to the airport.
Eventually, a Collings staff member returned to TAC Air, heard Debra Riddell crying and went to talk to her. “She was crying, hugging me,” Debra Riddell said. “She kept saying she was sorry. I said I need to know if there are any survivors.” The woman told her six people had gone to hospitals.
Debra Riddell said she and her husband’s ex-wife went to Hartford Hospital, where again they received little information. As they left they saw that Collings Staff had stowed the memorabilia they sell at each stop.
At the hospital, she said she was getting more information from the media than from an official sources. Eventually, she learned all of the injured had been accounted for.
“Essentially, it sounded like they were still on the scene, in the plane,” she said. “And then they started asking for dental records.” State police asked about what her husband had done the previous 24 hours, a routine step in death investigations, and took the text messages and photos they’d exchanged.
Rob Riddell worked as a business analyst at The Hartford Financial Services Group Inc. The company said it was “very saddened to learn of the passing of our longtime employee, Robert Riddell, in the crash yesterday at Bradley International Airport. We offer our condolences to his family and friends and to everyone affected by this tragedy.”
Debra Riddell said she and her husband bought land in North Carolina and planned to retire there, build a timber frame house and “retire in peace and beauty and live happily ever after.” She said she’s not sure she can go now.
“Our memories are here, in this house,” she said.
‘An excellent detective, an excellent inspector’
Gary Mazzone, 66, who retired nine months ago after a 42-year career in law enforcement, was among those who died in the crash. He most recently was a police inspector in the Litchfield State’s Attorney’s office.
“I was really worried about him retiring,” said his son Brian Mazzone, an English teacher at Enfield High School and the football coach at Stafford High. “I thought he’d be bored out of his mind.”
But he was never bored. “He was so social. He stayed in touch with his friends. He watched my boys every Wednesday. He was doing a ton of hunting and fishing. He was really hunting and fishing every day.” Brian Mazzone said his father studied forestry in college and loved the outdoors.
And Mazzone was also working wonders with his vast array of handyman skills, helping his daughter Maureen, who’d just bought a house, and building a fort with his grandsons Brody, 8, and Brock, 6. He was also a regular at his grandsons’ flag football games and other sporting events. Mazzone also built a home in the Adirondack mountains that he and his wife Joan would regularly visit.
Brian Mazzone said his father always wanted to be a history teacher. He recalled family vacations to the Freedom Trail in Boston and to the museums in Washington, D.C. “He loved history and he really loved museums and historical events,” he said.
Boarding the historic B-17 on Wednesday was part of that passion for history, Brian Mazzone said.
Jack Bannan, a fellow inspector, said Mazzone was looking forward to flying on the bomber and had been trying to recruit friends to join him.
“He was psyched, he was pumped,” Bannan said. “It was kind of a bucket list thing for him. He talked about doing it long before this week, about doing something like this. And when the opportunity presented, he jumped on it.”
Former Litchfield State’s Attorney David Shepack said he got to know Mazzone when he was transferred to his office to assist with the prosecutions related to the Maryann Measles homicide. Mazzone, as an inspector, lined up witnesses, marshaled evidence, helped with witness interviews, served subpoenas and conducted his own investigations.
“He was an excellent detective, an excellent inspector, a real student of human nature,” Shepack said.
“He could connect with anybody, anywhere,” Bannan said. “In our business, that’s really important. He really cared about people, good guys, bad guys, witnesses, victims. He cared about everyone. That’s what gave him the ability to be as good a cop as he was.”
Mazzone was also famous — infamous to some — for his practical jokes. Bannan said Mazzone called him pretending to be from the company that was renting chairs to him for his wedding. “He calls me up in a fake voice, like three or four days before my wedding,” Bannan recalled. “’This is Bill from Acme Chair Rental and we have a bit of a problem.’ Basically he’s saying they’ve got to double the price for me.” Bannan said Mazzone completely snowed him. “I’m saying I’ve got a contract and I’m getting all spun up,” Bannan said. Mazzone, in a phony voice responds, “Come on Mr. Bannan, you’ve got to be reasonable. He just kept going and I was in the stratosphere.”
Brian Mazzone said his father had a regular repertoire of jokes and pranks. “He was always the life of the party,” he said. “Honestly, I’ve met very few people in my life who didn’t like my dad. If you didn’t like my dad, you were probably a jerk.”
‘If anyone could have landed that plane, it would have been him’
Michael Foster, 71, the co-pilot of the B-17 was an experienced pilot who as a teenager bartered work at an airport in suburban Chicago for flying lessons. He earned his FAA private and commercial certificates as a young man and went on to a career as an attack jet pilot in the Navy.
He flew A-7 Corsair IIs from the aircraft carriers Forrestal and Enterprise and was commanding officer of an attack squadron. He retired from the Navy as a captain in 1995 and went onto a career in commercial aviation, flying Boeing 737s and 747s and McDonnell Douglas DC-10s. He retired from Northwest Airlines as a 747 captain.
But he never stopped flying. “He just loved being around pilots and aviation,” said a relative who asked not to be identified.
Foster flew with the Collings Foundation for many years, his relative said, and was rated on most if not all of the organization’s aircraft.
“They have a pretty strenuous and rigorous process,” the relative said. You have to have good credentials, know all of the manuals and pass a battery of tests.
“The people who fly them are really protective of the aircraft,” the relative said. “They won’t let just anyone fly it.”
And, Foster’s relative said, “If anyone could have landed that plane, it would have been him.”
James Roberts, 48, of Ludlow, Mass., grew up watching World War II documentaries with his father and became fascinated with the aircraft and other hardware the Allies used to defeat Germany and Japan.
It was only natural he’d want to fly on the historic B-17 bomber, said his brother, Joe Roberts.
“He really wanted to fly on this thing,” he said. “He was always a fan of the old-style planes … a history buff.”
Jim, as his three brothers and sister called him, tried to recruit his brothers to go with him, but each had obligations at work. So he scheduled himself to fly alone on the 4 p.m. flight on Wednesday.
He then got a call from the Collings Foundation asking him if he wanted to move up to the 9 a.m. flight, and he did, his brother said.
James Roberts worked at Hood in Agawam, Mass., and was the second shift supervisor for milk production. The hours were odd, but a good fit for James Roberts because he was a night owl, Joe Roberts said.
In addition to history, James Roberts enjoyed role playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons and looked forward to traveling to DragonCon in Atlanta. He also loved the Patriots, the Red Sox and skiing. Joe Roberts said his brother was also an incredible artist who had been drawing his own comic book.
“He was just a really good guy and lived a low-key, quiet life,” his brother said. “We’re going to miss him a lot. He tried to get as much out of life as he could. He was really looking forward to this. It’s just a tough, tough day and there’s many more to come.”
James Roberts organized a trip to a Patriots game for him and two of his brothers, but it’s going to be tough without Jim, Joe Roberts said. “I’ll probably go because my brother Jim would want us to go, but it’s going to be painful being there with an empty seat.”
Two Simsbury firefighters
James Traficante, 54, is a five-year member of the Simsbury Volunteer Fire Department and a chief master sergeant in the Connecticut Air National Guard.
He was a passenger on the B-17 that crashed and was able to open a hatch without burning his hands because he had brought his military-issued, flame retardant flight gloves with him, the Guard said Thursday.
Using the gloves, he opened the hatch and allowed other passengers to get out, they said. The Air National Guard didn’t initially name Traficante but in a news release said he is the command chief for the 103rd Airlift Wing.
Traficante was injured — sources said he suffered at least one broken arm and a broken collarbone in the crash — and was treated at Hartford Hospital. He was discharged later in the day, the Guard said.
As an aircrew member, Traficante has training and experience in handling aircraft emergencies, the release said.
“The Connecticut National Guard is thankful that our Airman on board the aircraft is safe and I ask that you respect his and his family’s privacy as he recovers,” said Maj. Gen. Francis Evon, the Guard’s Adjutant General.
Traficante was on board with another member of the Simsbury Volunteer Fire Department, 48-year-old Joseph “JT” Huber.
Fire Marshal and Deputy Chief Kevin Kowalski said that Huber has been with the fire department for nearly 15 years.
“They’re good guys, they’re part of our family and we’re going to help them through this,” Kowalski said.
He said the department is working on putting together some type of support for Huber and Traficante, depending on what they and their families need.
“We’re just going to try to help them,” Kowalski said. “Our folks will be working with the family to make sure that they’re all set.”
Hartford Hospital officials said Thursday that it treated six people after the crash. Three were released by Wednesday night. Two patients were transferred to the Connecticut Burn Center at Bridgeport Hospital, and one person was still at Hartford Hospital Thursday afternoon.
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