HARTFORD, CT—U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal on Monday issued a series of questions to the Federal Aviation Administration questioning the differing regulations overseeing commercial flights and vintage plane tourism flights like the one that crashed at Bradley International Airport Oct. 2.
The B-17 operated by the Massachusetts-based Collings Foundation crashed upon returning to Bradley with engine trouble just a few minutes after takeoff, killing seven on board and injuring seven more.
Blumenthal shared with reporters a March 2018 letter from the FAA to the Collings Foundation that granted a two-year extension of an exemption to FAA regulations allowing the organization to run the “living history flight experiences” program and to collect fees as compensation for the program.
He said he is not making a judgment about whether the flight or Collings adhered to safety standards, but was asking the FAA to review the program in light of the crash and 21 others since 1982 that have resulted in a total of 30 deaths, including the seven last week.
“This crash and other tragic crashes previously, 21 of them since 1982, directly and immediately raise questions about the adequacy about those conditions and regulations,” Blumenthal said in a news conference at the state Legislative Office Building. “The question for the FAA is now whether these conditions and criteria assure sufficient safety for anybody who flies in these plans and for anybody on the ground who may be victims of a crash.”
The seven-page letter from the FAA to the Collings Foundation documents 24 different safety, operational and regulatory requirements the organization is required to meet. Imposing the regulations “are the FAA’s means of ensuring an equivalent level of safety” to existing regulations, the letter says.
“This may necessitate limitations that go beyond the established regulations because the proposed operation is, by its need for an exemption, outside the normal regulatory structure,” the letter says.
The B-17 was flying with three crew and 10 passengers as part of the Wings of Freedom Tour featuring five World War II-era aircraft. One person was injured on the ground where the plane crashed into the airport’s de-icing facility off the side of the main runway. One airport staff member who was working at the facility was also injured.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash. A spokesperson said Monday that a preliminary report is expected later this week.
“These World War II vintage planes and others like them are a respected, even revered part of American history. Part of our respect for those planes should be to make sure that they are safe whenever they are flown,” Blumenthal said. “The same kind of rigorous criteria and standards should apply to these planes as do other planes. To tolerate risk is unacceptable because these aircraft should be made safe. Not grounded, but made safe.”
Blumenthal said the exemptions allowing vintage airplanes to fly have different standards than commercial flights for items like fuel storage and seat belts. They have no requirement for a “black box” flight recorder and apparently allow for records to be stored in the aircraft instead of at a centralized location
An FAA spokesperson said Monday that the agency would respond directly to Blumenthal. The FAA declined to elaborate on what the response would be and when it would be issued.
State police have identified the deceased and injured passengers, crew and airport staff as residents of Connecticut and Massachusetts between 28 and 75. Pilot Ernest McCauley, 75, of Long Beach, Calif. and Co-pilot Michael Foster, 71, of Jacksonville, Fla. both died, and Flight Engineer Mitchell Melton, 34, of Dalehart, Texas was injured.
The five passengers who died are David Broderick, 56, of West Springfield, Mass., Gary Mazzone, 66, of East Windsor, James Roberts, 48, of Ludlow, Mass., Robert Riddell, 59, of East Granby and Robert Rubner, 64, of Tolland.
After the crash, the Collings Foundation said in a statement that it was suspending the remainder of the Wings of Freedom Tour for 2019.
“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 organization said in a statement. “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.”
The B-17 that crashed Oct. 7 was known as the “Nine O Nine” and before the crash was one of only nine in flying condition in the country, Collings said in an announcement for the tour. Rides on the B-17 and other fighter and bomber planes were available for $400 to $450.
The rare aircraft are an important part of telling the history of the country and WWII, the group said.
“Public reports have indicated that at least one engine failed during flight and that there were engine issues on previous occasions,” Blumenthal wrote in his letter to the FAA. “If these historic planes are to be flown, the FAA must ensure the safety of vintage aircraft and address any dangers posed to passengers, crewmembers, and the public.”