Federal investigators have concluded pilot error and inadequate engine maintenance led to the fiery 2019 crash of a WWII B-17G bomber plane at Bradley International Airport that killed seven and injured seven more.
Investigators also will blame an inadequate safety management system by the plane’s owner, the Collings Foundation, and inadequate oversight of that plan from the Federal Aviation Administration as contributing factors to the fatal crash when they finish a more than 18-month investigation this spring.
Although a final report on the cause of the crash is still weeks away, investigators revealed their findings Tuesday morning before the National Transportation Safety Board as the group highlighted the B-17 incident and several other fatal crashes over the past five years as examples of how some operators have exploited loopholes or lax oversight to avoid stricter safety regulations.
The disastrous October 2019 Collings Foundation flight as part of the group’s “Wings of Freedom” tour, during which donors could fly in historic military planes, was identified by investigators as an example of the lack of ongoing federal oversight that, even when groups have safety management systems, can introduce risks that are “unacceptable and avoidable,” the NTSB found.
“I imagine and I hope the majority of these flights are operating in accordance with regulations and being done safely,” NTSB Chairman Robert L. Sumwalt told reporters after the group’s meeting. “But we’ve seen cases where they have not, there have been extreme cases where people have lost their lives and we need to correct that.”
Sumwalt called on FAA officials to “step up to the plate and regulate” and said the board’s recommendations, taken together, should force aviation regulators to identify regulatory shortcomings and create more robust rules for operations like the Collings Foundation.
“When someone pays for an air tour, a parachute jump flight, or an extreme aerobatic experience flight, they have the right to expect effective safety standards for such operations,” Sumwalt said, in a statement. “Currently that is not the case, and this exposes customers to unnecessary risks.”
A spokesperson for the Collings Foundation did not immediately return a request for comment Tuesday afternoon.
The Collings Foundation’s B-17G bomber Nine O Nine crashed a few minutes into a flight on Oct. 2, 2019, after experiencing a partial loss of power to two of its four engines just after take off, investigators said.
Pilot Ernest McCauley turned off one of those engines during the plane’s initial climb from the runway and tried to guide it back, but the plane skidded off the runway and erupted in flames. McCauley, his co-pilot and five passengers were killed and seven other passengers and workers on the ground were injured.
A surviving flight crew member told investigators he believed pilot McCauley “froze” after the flight took off and cut power to an engine over his objection just before the plane crashed, previously released documents show.
Now NTSB investigators say they have concluded McCauley failed to properly manage the plane’s configuration and speed on its way back to the airport, causing the crash.
The FAA accused the Collings Foundation in the months after the crash of lacking a “safety culture” when flying the B-17G and found the group had not met its requirements to fly the aircraft or carry passengers, even revoking the foundation’s permissions to operate early last year. The NTSB’s final report will conclude that McCauley and the foundation did not give the plane adequate maintenance while it was on a national tour, which directly resulted in the partial loss of power to two engines the day the plane crashed.
The incident is the latest in a series of eight fatal crashes over the past decade of aircraft governed by federal Part 91 regulations, which have less strict safety rules than other types of passenger flights, officials said.
NTSB investigators have found the Collings Foundation did maintain a safety management system, as required, but that the FAA did not review that manual or provide any other oversight of the system, they said at the meeting Tuesday.
They also found the Collings Foundation’s flights fell through several regulatory cracks because of its status as a living history flight experience operation, for which some safety recommendations do not apply and investigators concluded FAA oversight is insufficient. NTSB officials also called for better guidance for FAA inspectors working with groups like the Collings Foundation and other Part 91 operators.
NTSB officials approved the new recommendations Tuesday and urged the FAA to adopt them and several previous board recommendations that remain open. Sumwalt said he expects the final report on the B-17 crash at Bradley to be released in the next 30 days as part of a package with the report and recommendations issued Tuesday.
“When people step on board an aircraft as paying passengers, they have a right to trust that the flight will be operated as safely as possible,” Sumwalt said. “The FAA must do everything in its power to ensure the safety of every revenue passenger in every revenue passenger-carrying operation, regardless of operating rule. Acting upon these recommendations would be a giant step toward that goal.”
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