Federal investigators said the pilots of a vintage Boeing B-17 bomber that crashed in Hartford, Connecticut, earlier this month reported engine trouble shortly after takeoff and requested clearance to land.
In its preliminary report of the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said air traffic controllers at Bradley International Airport in Hartford cleared the B-17G to land on runway 6 after one of the pilots reported a “rough mag” on the number 4 engine.
On approach, the vintage bomber clipped a series of airport lights and slammed into the ground about 500 feet short of the runway. The fuel-heavy plane continued onto the runway and veered right before crashing into a de-icing facility and tanks, exploding on impact. Seven of the 13 people aboard the plane were killed, six were injured, and one person on the ground also was injured.
According to the NTSB, an airport lineman at Bradley International added 160 gallons of 100LL aviation fuel to the plane that morning. The plane was the first aircraft that day to be filled with that fuel. The report says there was no debris or water contamination in the fuel and no problems were found with the fuel truck’s equipment or fuel supply. No other aircraft filled with the same fuel that day reported any anomalies.
The last time that particular B-17 bomber had its annual inspection was on Jan. 16. Its last core inspection was Sept. 23, nine days before the Oct. 2 crash.
The B-17 involved in the crash was owned by the Collings Foundation, a Massachusetts-based educational group that brought its Wings of Freedom vintage aircraft display to Hartford’s Bradley Airport that week. The vintage plane was FAA-certified through November 2022. The group is one of several nationwide that offers the general public a chance to experience rides on vintage airplanes.
The deadly crash, however, is one of 22 accidents involving World War II-era bombers in the last 37 years. Those crashes have resulted in 30 deaths and several more injuries.
The Oct. 2 crash also raises questions about the airworthiness of some vintage aircraft and whether they are safe enough to fly paying passengers. The B-17 that crashed in Hartford was built in 1944.
“Our thoughts are with the family members of those killed in this tragic crash,” said Mike Andrews, a Beasley Allen lawyer who handles aviation accident cases for the firm. “We expect to learn more as investigations unfold, but preliminary information indicates the vintage airplane failed to gain proper altitude on takeoff and suffered loss of power in at least one engine. Investigators are currently looking at propeller pitch and power settings to learn more about the moments leading to crash.”
Some problems with military airplanes that are more than 70 years old are that there are no manufacturers producing spare parts or government resources to keep them in the air as they did decades ago. Theoretically, to be truly safe, every single part of the aircraft would have to be thoroughly and frequently inspected. Even when impeccably maintained, as the plane that crashed at Bradley International appeared to be, problems could go undetected.
The B-17G bomber, sometimes called the “Flying Fortress” or “Nine-O-Nine,” is a rugged aircraft designed for combat. The planes were built in an era preceding modern aircraft safety standards and were never intended to carry passengers — only bombs and a highly trained crew.
Vintage bombers and other military aircraft are allowed to carry paying passengers after obtaining a “living history flight exemption” issued by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). But even then, there is a lot of regulatory gray area when it comes to such flights.
“This tragic crash raises very significant and urgent issues about the safety requirements of these vintage aircraft,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), told USA Today. “Most of them are 70 years old, providing tourist and sightseeing attractions for people who trust they are boarding an airplane that is maintained and inspected in the same way that commercial aircraft are. The fact is, they may not be.”
Sen. Blumenthal called on the NTSB to look at the inspection and maintenance requirements of vintage aircraft and whether they need to be more rigorous.
According to the Associated Press, Jennifer Homendy, who is leading the NTSB crash investigation team in Hartford, indicated that the toll of people killed in vintage airplane accidents is too high.
“I think 21 incidents is tragic and 23 deaths is completely unacceptable,” she told the AP, referring to the number of crashes and deaths before the Hartford incident.