HARTFORD, Conn. — The deadly crash of a B-17 bomber in Connecticut has shaken the ever-smaller community of pilots who fly World War II-era planes that they say offer both unique challenges and thrills.
Seven people were killed when the plane crashed and burned Wednesday about eight minutes after taking off from Bradley International Airport. The pilot, Ernest “Mac” McCauley, 75 who was regarded as one of the most experienced B-17 pilots in the country, reported a problem with an engine, turned back to the airport and touched down before losing control on a runway and crashing into a de-icing facility. Co-pilot Michael Foster, 71, also died.
The deaths have hit the close-knit aviator community hard, said Craig McBurney, a Connecticut pilot who used to fly the same B-17 for the Collings Foundation educational group that McCauley was flying for.
“We called ourselves the bomber guys,” said McBurney, who owns a vintage plane restoration business in Chester. “We are more resolved now to keep this tradition alive. It has to stay. It has to continue.”
Aviation experts say there are more risks associated with flying older planes like the B-17 than with modern aircraft. That includes the lack of modern systems that help prevent post-crash fires and fuel leakage, said Michael Slack, an Austin, Texas-based vintage aircraft pilot and attorney.
McCauley had flown for over 20 years for the Collings Foundation and had logged 7,300 hours in B-17s, according to the National Transportation Safety Board. In a 2014 interview with Plane & Pilot magazine, he said it was an honor to fly such an iconic plane. But he also talked about the challenges.
“The B-17 is a very stable, nice-flying airplane,” he told the magazine. “But, it’s so big that it’s like driving a cement truck on a go-cart track. ... It doesn’t like crosswinds. You have this huge mass that wants to swap ends with you all the time.”
Only a small number of experienced pilots can fly vintage military planes, and that number has been dwindling as older pilots die, Slack said. To lose two such pilots at once hit the small community particularly hard, said Eric Whyte, another Collings Foundation pilot.
“As a very experienced pilot and mechanic, I often picked his brain about the airplanes and he was happy to help,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “I regret I never took a picture of us flying together. Mac had a ‘no selfies in the cockpit’ rule.”
Whyte declined to speak to The Associated Press and said the Collings Foundation had asked pilots not to do interviews.
Several aviation enthusiasts, however, took to social media to share their grief.
Joe Coraggio, an Arizona pilot who flew with McCauley in the B-17 earlier this year, said in a Facebook post the crash caused him to think “why we fly these old airplanes and do some of the things we do as pilots.”
“We undoubtedly accept more risk by doing so,” wrote Coraggio, who also declined an interview request. “But we do these things we do because it is who we are. We are pilots. We get our enjoyment from flying. ... We aren’t wired to sit on the sidelines and watch life go by.”
There were only 10 B-17 bombers actively flying before the crash, which dropped the number to nine. John Cudahy, of the International Council of Air Shows, said they’re held to a higher standard than other vintage aircraft from the era because they do tours and give rides.
After a vintage plane is certified, the operator must maintain it according to federal regulations. Federal Aviation Administration inspectors conduct periodic inspections. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash, which also injured seven people, one of whom was on the ground.