A loud roar punctuated the air while the engines of a B-17 Flying Fortress warmed up on a runway at Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport.
Thursday marked the first flight of a B-17 in the region following the deadly crash at Bradley International Airport on Oct. 2 which claimed the lives of seven on board.
Five minutes after take off, the pilot of the vintage bomber indicated to air traffic control at Bradley that they were experiencing an issue and would land. The plane landed short of the runway and struck an instrument landing stanchion then veered to the right. It traveled over a grassy area and then struck a de-icing facility and several vehicles.
The plane erupted into a fiery scene with plumes of smoke filling the airspace above it. Smoke could be seen across the Massachusetts state line from downtown Springfield.
There were 13 people on the plane, including 10 passengers, at the time of the crash.
The plane belonged to the Collings Foundation, of Stow, an organization dedicated to “preserving living aviation history” that flies a fleet of vintage aircraft. It was among three bombers and two World War II fighter planes scheduled to be at the airport through Thursday, with flights available to the public as part of the “Wings of Freedom” tour. All flights organized by the Collings Foundation were grounded through the end of 2019 following the crash.
Thursday’s flight in Westfield was organized by the Experimental Aircraft Association, a nonprofit dedicated to aviation education and preservation.
The 25-minute flight marked the first in a weekend of flights open to the public at Barnes offered by Experimental Aircraft, featuring views of the Pioneer Valley from the air and a guided tour of the plane.
EAA volunteer Billy Janus sat towards the rear of the plane Thursday, pointing out the different parts of the aircraft with the enthusiasm of a real B-17 aficionado.
“I helped turn wrenches, I interacted with crowds,” said Janus while talking about his time with the EAA. “I put on experiences for schools to come out and learn about these things.”
Sitting across from him was passenger Linc Turcotte who has been up in the B-17 twice and has a connection to the war in which the bomber was used through his family.
“This will be my second B-17 flight,” said Turcotte. “My father was in Normandy the year before we landed there. He was naval intelligence and he would never talk about his experiences.”
The B-17, also called Flying Fortress, was a U.S. heavy bomber used during World War II. Designed by the Boeing Aircraft Company in response to a 1934 Army Air Corps specification that called for a four-engine bomber at a time when two engines were the norm.
“I flew the B-52 in Southeast Asia and then I flew the 141 during desert storm,” said 20 year Pilot of the B-17, Rick Fernalld who used to fly for the U.S. Air Force. “[I was] kind of a trash hauler and thing dropper.”
Fernalld talks about flying the B-17 as being much more physically demanding than the aircraft he was used to.
“It’s just heavier, there’s no power steering,” said Fernalld. “It’s a manual event, if you will.”
Co-pilot Tom Ewing has been with the EAA for 4 years and flew internationally before with UPS.
Fernalld’s father was a tail gunner on the B-17 and Ewing’s uncle was the commanding officer of a group carrier squadron that had B-17’s assigned to it.
“We all have some sort of family connection to World War II pilots,” said Ewing. “And the history of the greatest generation.”
EAA stopped all B-17 flights for a week out of respect to the crew, passengers, and families of the fatal crash at Bradley.
Investigators are still looking into how and why the vintage plane crashed with officials also examining the safety history of the B-17.
The B-17 Aluminum Overcast Tour takes enthusiasts into the air for about 24 minutes and once airborne, passengers are allowed to walk about the bomber and see the views from the nose through to the gunner windows.
© 2019 MassLive.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.