The day after a World War II-era bomber crashed in Connecticut, killing seven of the 13 people on board, Ben Drickey considered fate.
His. And the unlucky aboard the B-17 Flying Fortress that was seeking an emergency landing Wednesday near Hartford. The cause is under investigation, though news reports say pilots reported engine trouble after takeoff and asked to return to Bradley International Airport. The aircraft crashed into a de-icing facility at the airport and caught fire. Among the dead were the two pilots and five passengers. Six others on board survived with injuries.
Drickey, an Omaha father of four, had ridden on that very aircraft in July during its stop at Eppley Airfield. The half-hour trip was a gift from wife Janna for his birthday. Drickey had just turned 45.
Drickey, who owns a video production company, is on planes all the time. He flies across the country for photo shoots and pays $40 a year for a membership service that sends him notices on upcoming cheap international flights, which he sometimes buys at a moment’s notice for future travel with Janna.
But it was this flight, this 30-minute trip above Omaha, that Drickey had wanted most.
Every few years, the B-17 comes to Omaha with other vintage aircraft as part of a living history Wings of Freedom tour organized by the Massachusetts-based Collings Foundation. Every year, Drickey thought: Aww, I should do that!
His grandfather was a tailgunner on a B-26, survived a crash during the Battle of the Bulge and survived being a prisoner of war. Drickey made a documentary of his grandfather’s experience for his family and, like younger generations drawn to these aging aircraft, is a history buff, of World War II especially.
Drickey had just returned from a shoot in Chicago on July 19 when his family surprised him with cake and a ticket for a ride the following day on the B-17, also called “Nine O Nine” because of its tail number. The Wings of Freedom Tour had come to Omaha.
The ride was not cheap; a spot on the cavernous, noisy B-17 — advertised as one of nine remaining — runs $450.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, this was the greatest gift. You will never top this gift!’ ” Drickey said.
The Wings of Freedom tour was held this year in Omaha at TAC Air at Eppley Airfield. Any member of the public could go for a fee — $15 for adults; $5 for children under 12. They could tour several World War II-era planes, including the B-17, a B-24 Liberator named “Witchcraft,” a P-51 Mustang named “Toulouse Nuts” and a P-40 Warhawk named “Jaws.”
There was a fifth aircraft that was supposed to be there, a B-25, best known for its use in the Doolittle raid. But it had suffered wing damage during a show in Colorado after striking a bird, and the Collings Foundation had grounded it, according to Michael Dober, an Omaha organizer.
Most visitors would see the planes on the ground, but rides were offered on each aircraft with ticket prices ranging from $450 for a half-hour in each of the bombers to $3,200 for a full hour in the P-40. Flight training for the P-51 was offered at a cost of $2,400 for a half-hour and $3,400 for a full hour.
The Wings of Freedom tour was in its 30th year, and a press release sent in July said it stopped in some 110 U.S. cities over 35 states annually. Omaha was a frequent stop. This year, the tour went to the Nebraska cities of Grand Island, Columbus and Omaha.
The Collings Foundation said in a statement: “Our thoughts and prayers are with those who were on that flight, and we will be forever grateful to the heroic efforts of the first responders at Bradley. The Collings Foundation flight team is fully cooperating with officials to determine the cause of the crash of the B-17 Flying Fortress and will comment further when details become known.”
Dober, the Omaha organizer, was a longtime volunteer with the show. When it came to Omaha, he and wife Lezlie, whose father was a flight instructor during World War II, would hit the phones and put up posters to get the word out.
Dober said he got countless offers to go up in the planes but always offered those rides to others. He said he was a B-24 guy and a 1990s ride in that aircraft during a Wings of Freedom stop in Nebraska made him committed to the foundation and its efforts to educate and pay homage to people who served during the Second World War.
Dober was friends with the B-17 pilot who died in Wednesday’s crash. He said Ernest “Mac” McCauley told him in Omaha in July that the “Nine O Nine” was being retired but that he would be flying “a new girl next year.”
“I said, ‘So you’re gonna be cheating on your girl, huh,’ ” Dober had joked about replacing one B-17 with another. “He said, ‘Time to get a new girl.’ ”
When asked why the “Nine O Nine” was to be retired, Dober said that he didn’t know of a specific reason but that the aircraft, built in 1944, “was old.” Then he added: “The new one is as well. It’s old, too.” Dober said the “Nine O Nine” had reached “a lot of hours, air hours.”
Dober said McCauley was very experienced and had logged many of those hours on that B-17. He said that he has not heard why the plane crashed in Connecticut but that the foundation would not have risked lives if there had been an issue.
“They aren’t going to put a plane in the air with even a remote chance of loss of life,” he said. “It had to have been something catastrophic that came out of nowhere.”
Skip Bailey, a flight training coordinator with the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Aviation Institute, said Friday that he hadn’t heard any details about the crash’s cause and couldn’t speculate. He had previously directed air shows at Offutt Air Force Base and said “war birds” were in use “all the time.”
“It was a big part of the program, have them flying and showing the heritage, the history,” he said.
He said UNO aviation students are flying aircraft that can be 50 years old. But he said the planes have to go through inspections to meet federal approval.
“I would assume those aircraft would have to do the same thing,” he said of the B-17 and other vintage planes.
Bailey was heartsick about the B-17 crash, calling it “horrible, absolutely horrible to hear.”
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Dober was so upset after learning the names of the dead that he became too emotional to finish an initial interview. He said the next day that he rarely cries but has lost sleep over his pilot friend “Mac” and what the B-17 crash could mean for the touring program.
“Devastated,” he said. “Oh my God. It’s unreal.”
Drickey said he mourns for the families of the lost but does not consider himself lucky. The crash was a thing that happened, and he is grateful to have had an experience of a lifetime aboard the B-17. It was nothing like any commercial flight he’s ever taken.
“You kind of want to have the experience of what it was like for the airmen doing what they did. That’s all I was thinking about: Wow, they had to sit in this small space and fly all this distance in this cold. You could really feel the plane moving,” he said. “You could feel the ups and downs, the lefts and rights. It felt like the plane was going sideways. I had a sense of freedom. A sense of wonder, really.”
Drickey said it was so loud in the bomber that if someone would have yelled, no one could have heard him. He said he wondered if the passengers had any idea there was trouble.
When on the B-17, Drickey said he considered the odds of a plane that old, that big crashing. “It crossed my mind, you know, is this plane going to make it? It’s old,” he said. “I didn’t dwell on it. I was just excited to be on it.”