A nonprofit group that for years has brought historic World War II aircraft to Nebraska for public flights has lost its right to carry passengers after an investigation into a fatal crash in Connecticut last year revealed serious safety violations.
The decision by the Federal Aviation Administration revokes the permission the Massachusetts-based Collings Foundation had obtained to allow paying passengers aboard 10 aircraft it owns.
One of those planes, the B-17G bomber Nine O Nine, developed engine trouble, crash-landed and burned Oct. 2 shortly after taking off from Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Connecticut. The pilot, co-pilot, and five passengers died in the crash. Six others survived, some with severe burns.
Collings had frequently brought the Nine O Nine and several other vintage aircraft to Eppley Airfield and other Nebraska airports on its nationwide Wings of Freedom tour, most recently in July 2019. For $15, visitors could get a close look at the planes, which also included a B-24 Liberator named Witchcraft, a P-51 Mustang named Toulouse Nuts and a P-40 Warhawk named Jaws.
Collings charged $450 for “living history flight experiences” on its bombers. It would often surprise World War II veterans with free flights aboard planes they had last flown on decades ago.
In a decision first reported by the Hartford Courant, Robert Carty, the FAA’s deputy executive director of flight service standards, found that the Collings Foundation hadn’t followed the requirements of its FAA permits and “lacked a safety culture when operating the B-17G.”
He said the FAA continues to gather facts “that indicate Collings lacked a commitment to safety (and) did not take seriously its safety management system program.”
Hunter Chaney, Collings’ marketing director, said the group can’t discuss the findings specifically because it is part of an ongoing investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board into the Windsor Locks crash.
But he pointed to the foundation’s long accident-free record and said in an email statement that Collings — a group dedicated to preserving aviation and automotive history — “has always held safety as its top priority.”
“Through thirty years of passenger carrying operations, and until the October 2, 2019, accident, the Wings of Freedom tour had never had an accident, injury or fatality,” he said in the statement. ”This record reflects a commitment to safety that has proudly set a standard among the Warbird community for generations.”
The crash stunned Nebraskans like Ben Drickey, who flew aboard the Nine O Nine in July as a 45th birthday present from his wife.
“It was devastating to me, the loss of the aircraft and the loss of those lives,” said Drickey, who runs a film production company in Omaha. “It does shock me to hear they had that many violations.”
Michael Dober, an Omaha volunteer who has coordinated Collings’ visits to Nebraska since 1994, was shaken by the FAA report.
”They had a reputation among World War II groups that they just didn’t cut corners,” Dober said. “There’s going to be a lot of people who are shocked to hear this.”
Less than two weeks after the crash at Bradley, the Collings Foundation appealed to its supporters to voice their support for its application to the FAA to be able to continue carrying passengers on its aircraft, including another B-17 it obtained to replace the Nine O Nine.
Collings did not comply with its own safety program, the FAA said, and the crew chief was not even aware that it existed. It added that the group “failed to maintain and apply” a program that met FAA standards.
The investigation also found that Ernest McCauley, 75 — who was chief pilot the day of the crash, and who doubled as Collings’ director of maintenance — had signed off on inspection records that wrongly indicated that there were no discrepancies with the aircraft.
Two of the aircraft’s four engines had been improperly maintained and were malfunctioning before the crash, the FAA investigation found.
”Collings did not have a structure to ensure adequate oversight of his decisions to conduct passenger-carrying operations,” the FAA said. “This indicates Collings lacked a safety culture when operating the B-17G.”
An inspection of the bomber’s engines found magneto and ignition failures in the plane’s No. 4 engine, according to the report, including an attempt to jury-rig one magneto that had left it inoperative. Inspectors also found spark plugs and electrode gaps that were out of tolerance on two engines.
On the day of the crash, the flight crew radioed the Bradley tower that they needed to return to the airport, according to a preliminary NTSB report.
When a controller asked the reason, the pilot replied that the airplane “had a ‘rough mag’ on the No. 4 engine.” “Mag” is short for magneto.
”As a result of these findings and other information, the FAA questions whether the engines were inspected adequately,” the agency said.
Collings has a right to appeal the FAA’s decision.
Drickey said he never felt a sense of danger during his flight last summer, which he called a “one in a million” opportunity.
“I was going into it with a sense of wonderment, just amazement,” he said. “I had the expectation that the Collings Foundation is doing everything they can to keep us safe. There’s really no knowing if they are.”
This report includes material from the Hartford Courant.