WINDSOR LOCKS, Conn. (AP) – A vintage B-17 bomber that had made numerous trips to Yellowstone Regional Airport over the years as part of the Wings of Freedom summer air show crashed last week at a show in Connecticut, killing seven of the people on board.
A pilot with more than 7,000 hours of experience flying a B-17 and his co-pilot were among seven people killed when the bomber crashed and burned at a Connecticut airport, officials said Thursday.
Pilot Ernest McCauley, 75, of Long Beach, Calif., had flown for over 20 years with the educational group that owned the World War II-era plane and was also its safety officer, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
In 2013 he spoke with the Enterprise of his admiration for the wartime airmen of the B-17 during an event with the plane.
“Most airmen were between 17 and 22 years old,” he said. “I’m in awe of what they must have gone through.”
The plane was carrying 13 people crashed and burned after experiencing mechanical trouble on takeoff Wednesday morning from Bradley International Airport. Five passengers were killed along with McCauley and the co-pilot, Michael Foster, 71, of Jacksonville, Florida, according to the Connecticut Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection.
The Collings Foundation’s B17G was painted to represent “Nine-O-Nine,” Another plane used in the European bombing campaign. The crew of the bomber completed 140 missions without losing any personnel, a record for their unit. “Nine-O-Nine” was ultimately scrapped at the end of the war.
The B-17 operated by Collings was built and delivered too late to see combat in World War II. No longer needed by the Army, the B-17 was subjected to the effects of three nuclear explosions during tests. It sat, “cooling off” for thirteen years before being sold for scrap, according to the foundation website.
It wasn’t the end for the B-17, however. Its next calling would be as a fire bomber. The plane was patched together and used in firefighting operations for 20 years. The aircraft was finally purchased by Collings and restored to wartime configuration.
The plane’s air show career has been more hazardous than any of its previous adventures. It had to be repaired after two earlier crash landings.
Investigators have begun securing evidence, including the engine in which the pilot had reported a problem, NTSB member Jennifer Homendy said at a news conference. As part of the investigation, she said, they also will look into witness reports that work was being done on one or two of the engines prior to takeoff. The plane had last been through a major inspection in January 2019, she said.
Among the passengers killed was Gary Mazzone, 60, of East Windsor, who was a history and military buff, according to his son, Daniel Mazzone. He didn’t know of his father’s plans to ride the B-17, he said, but knew why he would be interested.
“I think he just wanted to see what it was like to be in the back of a B-17,” Daniel Mazzone said. “He loved World War II. He loved people who served this country in any capacity.”
Mazzone, a father of three children and two stepdaughters, retired in January as a prosecutor’s office inspector and previously was a Vernon police officer for 22 years.
“We’re all very sad ... and we’re very sad for his family,” Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane said. “He was a good investigator. He was a good inspector. And he was a very good and helpful colleague.”
The wife of Robert Riddell, an insurance company analyst from East Granby, Conn., said she was devastated by the loss of her husband. Robert Riddell had posted a photo from inside the plane just before takeoff.
Debra Riddell was at the airport herself and watched with dread as the plane struggled.
“As soon as it fell behind the hangar, I just had this really bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. I just sensed that that plane was going to go down. I knew it, was certain of it,” she said.
The other passengers killed in the flight were James Roberts, 48, of Ludlow, Massachusetts; David Broderick, 56, of West Springfield, Massachusetts; and Robert Rubner, 64, of Tolland, Connecticut.
The flight engineer Mitchell Melton, 34, of Dalhart, Texas, survived with injuries. Five other passengers on the plane were injured along with Andrew Sullivan, 28, an airport employee who was on the ground near the site of the accident.
Bridgeport Hospital officials said that one survivor who arrived in serious condition was upgraded Thursday to fair condition, and that two others there were still in fair condition. All three suffered burns and broken bones.
One patient injured in the crash remained at Hartford Hospital, officials said.
Chief Master Sgt. James Traficante, an airman with the Connecticut National Guard who was aboard the B-17 bomber helped other passengers escape the flames by using his fire-resistant gloves to open a hatch, officials said.
The airman has training in handling emergencies on aircraft and had brought his military-issued gloves on the flight, according to the Guard. Traficante was treated at a hospital and has been recovering at home.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with all those affected by this tragic accident,” said Maj. Gen. Francis Evon, adjutant general of the Connecticut National Guard.
The retired, civilian-registered plane was associated with the Collings Foundation, an educational group that brought its Wings of Freedom vintage aircraft display to the airport this week, officials said.
The vintage bomber – also known as a Flying Fortress, one of the most celebrated Allied planes of World War II _– was used to take history buffs and aircraft enthusiasts on short flights, during which they could get up and walk around the loud and windy interior.