HARTFORD, Conn. – Pilot error probably caused the 2019 crash of a World War II-era bomber in Connecticut that killed seven people and wounded six others, the National Transportation Safety Board said in a report released Tuesday. It also cited inadequate maintenance as a contributing factor.
The four-engine, propeller-driven B-17G Flying Fortress bomber with 13 people aboard crashed at Bradley International Airport, north of Hartford, during a traveling vintage aircraft show on Oct. 2, 2019.
The pilot, Ernest “Mac” McCauley, reported a problem with one of the engines shortly after takeoff, and the plane crashed into a maintenance building and burst into flames after striking the runway lights during a landing attempt.
The NTSB said the flight data indicated that the landing gear was extended too early, adding drag that slowed the plane, and it was traveling too slow on its return to the airport.
“The B-17 could likely have overflown the approach lights and landed on the runway had the pilot kept the landing gear retracted and accelerated to 120 mph until it was evident the airplane would reach the runway,” the NTSB said.
In the report, there was also a call on the Federal Aviation Administration to adopt tighter regulations on vintage aircraft flights offered to the public.
McCauley, 75, of Long Beach, California, was a veteran pilot who colleagues said had great skills flying the B-17G. He and co-pilot Michael Foster, 71, of Jacksonville, Florida, were killed in the crash, along with five of the 10 passengers. The plane's mechanic, Mitchell Melton, of Hawkins, Texas, was the only crew member to survive.
The NTSB said there was a power loss in two of the four engines during the flight, a problem it blamed on McCauley's “inadequate maintenance." McCauley also served as the maintenance director of the plane's owner, the Collings Foundation, based in Stow, Massachusetts.
The NTSB also said the Collings Foundation had an ineffective safety management system that failed to identify hazards, including the inadequate maintenance of the plane. Investigators said the system, as well as the FAA's ineffective oversight of the system, also contributed to the accident.
The Collings Foundation said in a statement Tuesday that it is reviewing the NTSB's findings. It did not directly address the NTSB's findings.
“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,” the foundation said. “Responsible flight and maintenance operations have always been a top priority of the Collings Foundation, reflected by over thirty years’ worth of a safe operating record, and always will be.”
Melton, the mechanic, from Hawkins, Texas, told investigators the No. 4 engine began losing power after takeoff and McCauley shut it off, despite Melton telling him there was no need to shut if off, according to NTSB documents.
Lawyers for relatives of people killed in the crash and survivors said in a statement that the NTSB report will help the families get some closure and prevent similar tragedies. The families and survivors are suing the Collings Foundation over the deaths and injuries. The foundation has denied wrongdoing.
“Unfortunately, our clients’ lives were forever changed when the Collings Foundation’s B-17 crashed at Bradley International Airport,” the lawyers said. “At the appropriate time ... we will present evidence to a Connecticut jury that the Collings Foundation’s failures as detailed in the NTSB report, caused the horrific injuries and deaths suffered by our clients.”
The passengers killed in the crash, who paid $450 apiece for the flight, included Gary Mazzone, of East Windsor, Connecticut; Robert Riddell, of East Granby, Connecticut, James Roberts, of Ludlow, Massachusetts; David Broderick, of West Springfield, Massachusetts; and Robert Rubner, of Tolland, Connecticut.
After the crash, the foundation suspended its flights and tour for the rest of the year. In March 2020, the FAA revoked the Collings Foundation’s permission to carry passengers aboard its World War II-era planes because of safety concerns stemming from the Bradley accident.
The FAA said in a statement Tuesday that it has a number of initiatives under way to improve the safety of vintage aircraft flights offered to the public. It has issued new guidance to safety inspectors, required them to inspect all operators of such flights by Sept. 30 and will be issuing new rules for operators' safety management systems.
U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat, called on the FAA to immediately implement the NTSB's recommendations.