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Federal Investigation Says Pilot Error Contributed To Deadly B-17 Crash

National Transportation Safety Board
The vintage airplane (shown above) involved in the accident was a former U.S. military bomber that was on a tour that allowed the public to purchase an excursion aboard "for a living history flight experience," according to the NTSB.

Federal investigators said Tuesday that pilot error and poor engine maintenance contributed to the destruction of a vintage B-17 airplane, which crashed and killed seven people at Bradley International Airport on Oct. 2, 2019.

In a report issued by the National Transportation Safety Board, the agency said the crash was likely caused by a failure of the B-17’s pilot to manage the airplane after a loss of engine power. 

Investigators said if the pilot had waited to extend the B-17’s landing gear, the troubled plane would have had a much better shot of reaching the runway. 

Instead, investigators said the landing gear was “extended prematurely.” The plane hit the ground about 500 feet before reaching the runway, collided with vehicles and a deicing fluid tank, and eventually caught fire. Seven people died, including the pilot and the co-pilot. Seven more were injured. 

“Extending the landing gear created additional drag that exacerbated this situation; the landing gear should not have been extended until it became evident that the airplane could reach the runway,” the report states. 

Investigators said the pilot’s “inadequate” engine maintenance also contributed to the crash.

“The pilot also served as the director of maintenance for the Collings Foundation, which operated the airplane, and was responsible for the airplane’s maintenance while it was on tour in the United States,” the NTSB said in a statement. “ … [T]he partial loss of power in two of the four engines was due to the pilot's inadequate maintenance, which contributed to the cause of the accident.”

In a statement, the Collings Foundation, which operated the World War II-era plane dubbed “Nine-O-Nine,” said, “We knew Ernest ‘Mac’ McCauley to be the most experienced B-17 pilot in the world who was passionate about the care and condition of all aircraft, especially Nine-O-Nine.”

A spokesperson for the Collings Foundation said that it cooperated with the NTSB investigation and that “responsible flight and maintenance operations have always been a top priority … and always will be.”

In a wrongful death complaint filed last year, several plaintiffs allege the crash was the result of the “negligence, recklessness, and callous indifference” of the Massachusetts-based nonprofit.

That case is scheduled to go to trial in 2023.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.

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