Saying Farewell To Another B-17 And Its Crew

The harsh reality of keeping historical airplanes airworthy and flying is that from time to time one will crash. Thus it was that on October 2nd a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress crash-landed after technical troubles. Incidentally, this is the very same airplane which we covered only a number of days ago. Painted to look like another B-17 of WWII (Nine-o-Nine, variant B-17G-30-BO), this late-model B-17G-85-DL aircraft wasn’t finished in time to join World War II, but instead spent its 74 years being a flying museum to these amazing airplanes.

Details about the cause of the crash are still scarce, but from radio communication between the crew and tower, it’s understood the B-17 was having having issues with the number 4 engine, which was seen sputtering and smoking by a witness. The airplane’s pilots tried to perform an emergency landing at Bradley International Airport, Connecticut, where it had taken off from only moments ago. Unfortunately the aircraft ran off the runway and struck a building, after which it burst into flames. The NTSB has indicated that they have dispatched a team to investigate the crash, and say that a preliminary report is likely two weeks away.

Of the thirteen people on board, seven died, with the remaining six surviving with injuries. One person on the ground was injured as well. The vintage bomber (civilian registration number N93012) has been all but completely destroyed in the fire, with only a section of the wing and tail remaining recognizable.

We feel terrible about such loss of life and hope the injured make a speedy recovery. The loss of yet another B-17 is also tough to swallow, as this leaves just ten airworthy B-17s. How long until we say farewell to this part of our history, with the final flight of a B-17, or its kin?

(Thanks to Pez for this update)

90 thoughts on “Saying Farewell To Another B-17 And Its Crew

    1. i bet the ntsb will recommend grounding significantly antiquated aircraft, ban them from carrying passengers, require more stringent inspections, etc. flyable replicas are a thing for a lot of smaller warbirds, though idk about bombers. that seems like quite a bit of effort to build a bomber from scratch.

      1. Those old birds are actually required to meet modern safety regulations, often requiring updating and modification to be declared airworthy. This includes regular inspections of all critical structure and systems, as well as regular re-builds of the engines.
        This wasn’t a failure of FAA regulation or a manufacturer’s quality issue, it was a failure of one engine. Engine failures occur in ALL types of aircraft (including those that carry hundreds of people), so there’s no point in changing the laws because of one tragic plane crash that was probably caused, at least in part, by an unpredictable issue.

        Just because it’s old doesn’t mean that it’s any less airworthy than any other aircraft.

        1. It’s strange that one out of four engines out would lead to a crash though. There’s probably more going on than just an engine failure. The FAA report will clear that up for sure (Aviation authorities are very good at this – someone I know crashed which sadly killed him, and the whole engine was put back together to find out exactly what had happened – and this was only a 2-seater!)

          Seeing the aftermath of the crash, I’m amazed any of them made it out alive.

        2. Look up TF-51. There’s one at JNX. I’ve helped wash…and sat up front and thought wishful thoughts. Years ago it was 3500 an hour for the plane…dry….and you had to fly with the owners instructor (based on the other side of the US). The fuel cost is nothing to snicker at…90 gallons per hour at cruise. During takeoff the problem is getting enough fuel to the engine. Seems as though the 3 inch diameter fuel line is the choke point.

        3. The one thing the FAA hasn’t caught up to is the NAVAIR standard of JOAP (Joint Oil Analysis Program), which mandates oil samples pulled from the operating engines over a certain interval. These samples are burned in a spectrometer, and trace elements are counted. Each engine has a tracked life and when certain trends start, such as unusual metal content, silicon, or carbon, it allows the oil lab to predict an engine failure. It can even alert to things like rubber seals failing. It won’t catch catastrophic failures if it relates to structural or external engine components, but it could have saved a lot of lives when there are “unknown” circumstances for crashes in private aviation.

          1. Could bad or incorrect fuel be the issue? Seems strange that it had trouble climbing….yes one engine was out, but were the others hampered?…if so fuel would impact all of them. This was a plane designed to take off with bombs and much ammo…this flight was light.

    2. For the same reason we can’t re-manufacture Saturn V or the F-22. Tooling has been scrapped / gone missing and important shop floor fabrication notes have been lost. I refer to this as “knowledge entropy” and it’s a potent force. I’ve worked on many consumer electronics products from ID rendering all the way through MP and I can say getting the product into manufacturing is only HALF to job. The other half is getting it through manufacturing.

      I’ll let you guess as to how much of the engineering effort is captured in any meaningful way.

      1. The tooling was recycled a long time ago. Same for the wooden forms to make the tooling. 3D manufacturing on a large scale won’t work, because the loads would be all wrong. Add to that the seemingly endless rivets that someone needs to drive, and the many specialized third party assemblies that haven’t been manufactured in more than 70 years. End result: the first copy would cost a good portion of a stealth fighter.

          1. The people working in WWII factories were not skilled aircraft assemblers, they were mostly unskilled workers pulled in from civilian businesses. They did not have special skills, there was no time for training. The airplanes were designed to be built by these unskilled workers. It is this exceptional design that has kept them working in the hands of unskilled tinkerers over the decades.

      2. If it was made once it can be made again – it’s mostly just a question of money.

        A lot of it is far more easily done today than it ever was – hell you can 3D scan & machine / print new parts from scratch… but where you need some massive jig the size of a building to fabricate a large assembly, there’s just no cheap substitute.

        Also, without all the engineering detail (EG material specs, treatments, calculations etc.) you can make a part that is identical in every way but might fail in operation because you didn’t know they did some heat-treatment to it in production.

        Friend of mine looks after classic race cars, they’re re-casting a small gearbox housing to fix one car and the tooling alone is costing 50k – back in the day that was spread across 10, 100, or even 1000+ units so it amortises quickly – but imagine having to do that for some major large lump of aircraft like an engine block or huge wing strut where the setup costs could be 250k+ for one part.

    3. Build a whole B17 from scratch? Are you kidding?

      I rode on this exact aircraft as a passenger back in 2013. They would sell tickets for an about 30min flight or so. It was a fantastic experience.

      So sad to see the loss of life and the loss of an iconic aircraft. I just saw it fly overhead this last Memorial Day when they were in the Bay Area (I live in the flight path of Moffett Airfield).

      RIP 9-0-9.

      1. MAAM is “rebuilding” a P-61 that when done is expected to have at least 70% of its airframe newly constructed. Despite it having crashed with only around 10 hours flying time, the crash and decades of weather exposure and vandalism did bad things to it. Looks like as they’ve gone through every part, they’ve been taking absolutely every bit of it apart, only re-using pieces that have no sings of corrosion, cracking, or bending. I assume that any doubt causes a piece to be tossed and a replacement fabricated.

        Out of only four Black Widows that remain, it will be the only one that will fly. It’s about 2/3 the size of a B-17 so it’s not beyond a determined group of people to pool their knowledge and skills to re-create a B-17.

        Another very massive undertaking to re-create an antique vehicle was the new Tornado steam locomotive in the UK. But for that project they adopted some new technologies such as using ball and roller bearings everywhere the original had plain bearings, and the project was able to get the frame rails made in a single piece instead of the two piece rails of the originals. Externally the new engine is identical, except for the engineer cab roof being slightly flatter so it’s 1 inch lower to meet the maximum height allowed on UK rails.

      2. I agree,I also flew on the 9 0 9,what a great experience and a great flight,the Collings foundation is one of the most professional organizations I have seen,and safety is their top priority

      3. I flew on it in 2015 out of John Wayne in Orange County, Ca.It is sad to hearxabout it,but most of the WWII aiecraft are probably in better condition than our on commercial airlines.

    4. While it’s not quite the same with these planes getting past 75+ years old I can see it happening, just like they now display reproduction WWI aircraft at airshows, how they will build new B-17s I don’t know but if there is demand they will. Still a tragic loss of life.

      1. Liberty Belle was almost completely destroyed by fire back in 2011, and it is being reconstructed. Anything is possible with enough money and dedication. They do have the advantage of the engines having survived though. That bring said, It’ll be years before it’s completed.

        1. I agree that cost would be extreme. And then you might have epa concerns about exhaust pollution. I believe they are going to rebuild an extinct Pennsylvania railroad steam engine known as a T1. If they started now and raised the funds, it would take 30 to 40 years to complete

  1. It is an age old debate, but one could argue that by helping to end WW2, this particular type of machine did more to stop suffering than it inflicted. Considering that this exact variant never really flew in WW2, I think I’ll opt to mourn the loss without guilt.

  2. I want to see the NTSB report on this accident. During war time the B-17 returned many times with multiple engines out. My uncle Ray LeDoux, was a navigator on DeLancey’s B-17. He navigated the plane home after the nose was shot off for which he received the Distinguished Flying Cross.

    Why did this plane crash?

    1. That’s definitely a valid question. A single engine failure in a B-17 is an annoyance, not an emergency. They turned back to the field simply to play it safe, and in the ATC recordings the pilot doesn’t sound terribly concerned about the situation.

      Something clearly happened after the plane touched down, and that’s where (hopefully) the NTSB report can shed some light on the situation.

      1. May not be accurate, but one news report stated that it clipped an ILS beacon on final.

        That leads to another set of “why?” Engine fire damaging hydraulics for flaps, sudden decrease of lift?

        1. That does look like the left wing that is largely intact in the pic, and the pilot reported Engine 4 issue (far right). News also reported that the plane veered to the right of the runway… I’d be leaning toward loss of hydraulics on right control surfaces just before touchdown… Loss of lift and drop on right wing with not enough time to recover…

          …But I wasn’t there, I’m not a pilot, and not the NTSB….

          1. The flight controls on a B-17 are not hydraulic, but operated by cables directly from the yoke and rudder pedals. Landing gear and flaps are electric. A better guess would be that the aircraft contacted an obstruction on approach, but at this point I would not hazard a guess. Let the NTSB do its job and reach its conclusion. The idea that the B-17 is too complex to maintain in this day and age seems a bit naive given the aircraft flying today.

          2. “Loss of lift and drop on right wing with not enough time to recover…”

            And THAT is a good explanation why far worse damaged B-17s returned and landed years ago.
            Most of their damage occurred at high altitudes allowing the pilots time to recover/compensate before hitting the ground.

          1. I have seen quite a few with just a rack and pinion setup. It largely depends on the design and what technology was available during the development of the flight control surfaces.

    2. That young, experienced, war tested pilots could fly a B-17 with multiple engines out does not mean old(er) pilots with far less current experience should be able to handle smaller failures with comparable success. How often did the crew of this plane fly? Most likely not multiple times per week as the pilots did during wartime.

      If the number 4 engine refers to one of the outboard most engines, a failure of one of those would create significantly more adverse yaw than one of the inboard engines. Asymmetric thrust from failed engines leads to crashes often enough that it’s often joked that the purpose of multiple engines is simply to get the aircraft to the crash site faster.

      Definitely a tragedy that this happened, but it’s arguable that these types of aircraft just shouldn’t be flown any longer. They’re just too large and complicated to be maintained by small groups of volunteers. Yes, we’d loose something magical to have these things grounded, but failures happen in all forms of mechanical things, so at some point we’re going to loose every last one to crashes if they keep flying.

      1. As a matter of fact, they do fly multiple times a week. That’s sort of the point. This plane had made over 1,000 similar flights of this nature, easily 10 times the number of missions a B-17 would have flown over Europe.

        There’s also absolutely no reason to believe the crash happened due to the age of the plane, or even a hardware failure.

        Until the results of the NTSB investigation are in, comments like this are completely worthless.

        1. “There’s also absolutely no reason to believe the crash happened due to the age of the plane, or even a hardware failure.”

          While it’s always possible the engine failure wasn’t related to the crash, it’s beyond absurd to suggest there’s no reason to believe it wasn’t. An engine failure was reported, an emergency landing initiated, the plane came in too low causing it to clip ground hardware… yea, no reason to believe the engine failure had ANYTHING to do with it. Right.

          Again, it’s always possible that it wasn’t related, but the odds are very much against that.

          1. With respect, you are clearly out of your depth and don’t understand the situation. The ATC audio is already available, the pilot never even declared a formal emergency. The loss of an engine on this type of plane is absolutely not a big deal.

            Now you can argue that losing the engine made for a more stressful landing, and that caused the crew to make a mistake, but that’s still ultimately falls under operator error.

          2. What is beyond absurd is when someone posts obviously ignorant crap, can’t accept the wisdom posted by someone who clearly has a clue, and comes back with bad arguments, rhetoric and sarcasm. It’s as if you’re asking for another beat-down.

            Facts:
            1. An expedited return to the field to the field was initiated. An emergency was not declared to ATC. (Go listen for yourself.)
            2. No official reports state that the plane came in too low. (Wikipedia is not authoritative.)
            3. Even if the anecdotal reports that the plane had come in too low prove out, it is too soon to attribute that to the failed engine. (That plane could fly on 2 engines.)
            4. Simple math and war history tells you that those pilots had way more experience flying that bird than any wartime pilot.
            5. Planes don’t crash just because they’re old.

            What are we left with? Irresponsible speculation. AWAIT THE NTSB REPORT.

        1. They were also in their early to mid 70’s. Not in any way intended to disparage the pilots, but it’s a simple fact that reactions slow with age, which is why, unless I’m mistaken, airline pilots in the US are required to retire by 65 – a decade younger than these pilots. And the specific engine failure they suffered results in a particularly difficult to control airplane.

          1. Those pilots knew the plane inside and out. i’d take them as pilots any day .

            Experience counts for more than youth. Lockheed-Martin had one of their older test pilots who was in his 60’s and overweight fly the first F-22 from Georgia to CA.

            By your measure the man shouldn’t even be allowed to touch a Piper Cub let alone a F-22.

      2. This aircraft (and many other WW2 era ones) are from the Collings Foundation based here in MA. They fly these planes literally every single day. They go around the country to various airports for the Wings of Freedom tours. They fly them each day during the stopovers with passengers who pay to go for a 30-minute ride.

        The people that go through these planes, service them and fly them know them like the back of their hands. They actually did an engine swap on this exact aircraft when there were at my local airport (ORH – Worcester) a couple years ago.

      3. Nonsense! The people who maintain these “large complex” aircraft do fantastic work! This comes from actual personal experience not uninformed opinion. They are dedicated VOLUNTEERS. They do it because they love it and want to, not because it’s a job. Please visit one of these flying museums and be impressed. And stop the speculation already let the investigators do there job.

  3. This particular machine was commissioned as a deterrent and ended up being pivotal in freeing a continent from an oppressive fascist regime that was specifically targeting civilians by using strategic bombing to target industry and military responsible for producing the munitions Hitler had raining down daily over Great Britain.

    In it’s absence the fight to take back mainland Europe would have been protracted greatly or not have happened at all.

    But yeah, lets go with the idea that all weapons are bad all the time and we should just stick our heads in the sand when Nazi are kill us off.

  4. Morbid maybe, but when I read about this crash the first thing that came to mind was the Hackaday writer’s comments about not feeling quite up to booking a spot on this old bomber… The same thing that makes it hard to just manufacturer some new ones presumably makes it hard to keep the existing few airworthy with anything like the degree of confidence you’d have with a plane for which new spares and up-to-date living documents on procedures and such were kept.

    Many such planes returned to base after all sorts of abuse during the war, but part of that was because the pilots and flight engineers would get together and talk shop and I bet they knew all the quirks and tricks and arcane hacks to limp one of these birds home _because_ they compared notes and remembered each other’s tricks and stories. Now that most of the crew members who flee during the war have succumbed to old age there’s not that living repository of knowledge to draw on and the same likely goes for the ground mechanics too.

  5. I know if it was this bird but a few weeks ago (KLAF) I heard an unmistakable rumble and looked up to see a B17 with condensate not smoke pouring out of #4 then it stopped and all was beautiful. The trail quickly dissipated. I saw a few more fly overs that day, but none that dramatic. Was this just some kind of venting or purging or was it bad signs of things to come?

    1. My sister’s Farther-in-Law (mentioned in a previous article) told me that after a fiery crash, there wasn’t much left of any wreckage, They would rake through the debris, and find some bone fragments and send those back to the families as the “body” of their loved one.

    2. There isn’t much to the fuselage. It’s thin aluminum sheet riveted into a box structure to give it strength. A fire hot enough will melt and oxidise the aluminum into near dust. I don’t know about a B17, but in many smaller planes I’ve flown, the engine is like 1/3 the weight of the entire aircraft.

    3. Aluminium melts at something like 600°C and it also starts to oxidise. Easily demonstarted: Put an empty beer can into a good burning campfire and it will “vanish” (turn to ashes, aluminium oxide)

  6. In the early 1990’s, I was a high schooler in Palm Springs, CA. A student in the first Aviation class that they school had (A Pilot Pilot program?) I had the privilege of spending a day or two a week in the ATC cab at PSP. This was well before 9/11, mind you. I was walking from the tower back to the FBO when I heard a loud rumbling from behind. I turned around, and Bob Pond’s B17 was only a couple of hundred feet away, taxiing my direction! I got out of there post haste, and watched it taxi by. I’ll never forget that experience.

    1. A group brought a B-17 (possibly 909 but I can’t recall for sure) and B-24 to Gainesville for an airshow some years back. We were walking around the backside of the parking ramp when the -24 loaded up some passengers and lit off those four big radials. My daughters were enthralled, rooted to the spot, standing about 20′ behind the tail of the -24. When the pilot ran up the engines to taxi, the propwash blew both my kids into the bushes behind us. They thought it was great. :D Wish I’d had the cash to take a ride in one of those beauties.

      1. It’s not a real good idea to be standing behind one of those piston-powered planes when they start up. On some of them, upon starting, they open the valves to remove the pressure so the starter can get the engine turning with less power/resistance. Then, they start the fuel flowing, and, finally close the valves, as they engage the magneto. But, the net result is that there can often be raw fuel blown through the engine and into the exhaust manifold, which subsequently ignites. I saw a Super Connie blow a 20 foot fireball out of the #3 engine while it was starting up one day. Wheeee!

  7. I got to see the Memphis Bell up close when she was at Mud Island, then I got to see her again at a scouting event in Millington, at the naval base one of the people restoring the Memphis Belle explained “we could return her to full operating condition, but we won’t because if these planes are flown, they are eventually crashed, and we want to keep the Memphis Belle around forever”

    I wish I’d realized the Belle was up in Ohio back when I was living in Kentucky, I wouldn’t have minded getting to see her now that I’m an adult haha.

    1. I’ve been driving back and forth to Atlanta for work for years now, and finally took the time to duck off of 75 and check out the museum in Warner Robins. Lo and behold there was a partly assembled B-17 undergoing a frame-out restoration, along with the front half of a B-29. Lots of shiny aluminum everywhere! :D

  8. Same thing happened with that crazy powerful STOL aircraft named Draco. After it appeared on HaD it suffered a nasty crash. I haven’t got a clue how statistics really work so I’ll have to ask you to stop writing about air-worthy machines.

  9. I have been in many a ww2 plane thru the years, and I trusted my life with the pilots and crews ability to handle these aircraft with skill. Not knowing what actually happened until the investigation is over puts blame on pilot error, hydraulic malfunction, engine problems, etc. Lets all take a breath and mourn the loss of life and the plane, answers will come later. BTW, my pop was a navigator on B29, pacific.

  10. I have flown in and flown the show “Memphis belle” as the air show director. Very sad to see the 909 go down with its crew. Having a couple of engine out experience in the B-17, it’s typically a procedure and not an emergency. Hoping the investigation reveals what happened. A sad day for War Bird aviation for sure. Prayers for the families who have experienced such a tragic loss.

  11. Per the aforementioned Draco crash, a Patey quote:

    “I make no excuses. Pilot error, pilot error, pilot error. This is going to haunt me for a long time.”

    I have watched several videos of the crew(s) that fly this particular B-17. Was not impressed with flight-deck coordination, much chagrined by the non-professional demeanor, and appalled by the poor radio discipline.

  12. Decades ago, I was sitting in my office, which was about half-way up in the tallest building in Lexington, Kentucky, when I heard a strange rumbling sound. Since my desk faced the window, I looked through the window at the street below, and didn’t see anything out of the ordinary down there. But, the rumbling kept getting louder. Finally, I glanced up, and there was a B-17 making a simulated bombing run on the building I was in. It was at about 1500 feet, with the bomb-bay doors open, heading directly at my side of the building. I about fell out of my chair. My mind had trouble believing what my eyes were seeing. But, it really was a B-17, and it really was making a simulated bomb run on the building.

    Later that afternoon, a couple of us played hookey from work, and went out to the local airport to see it. I think it was the Texas Raiders from the Commemorative Air Force. They were doing a sweep of several local airports, as the plane made it’s way up to the Dayton, Ohio air show later that month.

    The sound from those four large radial engines was just incredible. Whoever was the engineer on that flight had them synchronized perfectly. I can’t even begin to imagine the sound that a flight of 1,000 of those planes would have made.

    It’s rather sad that, out of the 12,731 built, only 9 are still in flying condition.

  13. I’ve been in that plane (on the ground, 5 years ago in Worcester, MA). It looked very well taken care of, and Collings is a good, dedicated bunch of people. I highly doubt that they would fly that aircraft if they weren’t positive it was in top shape.

    Something happened, and the pilots weren’t able to recover. I did hear that the flight engineer survived, so perhaps he will be able to shed some light on what happened.

    First reports mentioned that the plane didn’t seem to be able to gain altitude, and my reaction was “with 3 engines and no payload, that shouldn’t have been a problem”.

    So sad that people died, happy that some survived.

    RIP

    1. I too was on this very plane in 2018, and agree that the Collings Foundation looked like a first class operation, and this plane appeared to be in great shape at that time. (In fact was on their B-25 this August, and same comments apply).
      Tragedy on many levels – terrible loss of life and injury, and loss of a true piece of history.
      Have faith that the NTSB will get to the bottom of it.

    2. I agree on the 3 engines.Really just would be a a little stick and rudder comp but i was really suspecting fuel contamination obut we will wait till we get findings.Climb out on 3 should not been much of an issue.

  14. I don’t think we need to worry about not having any more B-17s. There are at least 6 current ground up restoration to fly projects underway now. Including Champain Lady, Desert Rat, the new Liberty Belle, Lacy Lady, and at least 2 which haven’t been given names that I now of yet.

  15. My mother was a riveter and my grandmother bucked rivets on the B-17 line at Boeing plant 2. Grandma never flew in her life because she said she “knew how they were built” and she died at 99.

  16. The preliminary report says engine #4 was feathered and #3 was “partially feathered” and it’s not clear why #3 was.
    So both engines on right side were not operating. A pilot also commented that the fuel is a low octane and in WWII the fuel was a much higher octane to produce more power. So maybe that’s why it couldn’t stay aloft

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