Boeing B-17 crash at Bradley

Yesterday was a sad one for aviation enthusiasts due to the Boeing B-17 crash near Hartford, Connecticut.

Friends and reporters have been asking me about this, but it is tough to say much. A plane of that vintage does not have the hooks necessary to feed a flight data recorder (“black box”). There wouldn’t be any reason for the plane to have had a cockpit voice recorder either, though that would be comparatively simple to install.

Currently, the only clue as to what might have gone wrong is the following exchange with Bradley Approach:

  • Pilot: Boeing 93012 We’d like to return to the field.
  • ATC: November 93012 Sorry, say again.
  • ATC: What’s the reason for coming back?
  • Pilot: The number four engine. We’d like to return and blow it out.

The italicized words are a bit tough to make out, but I think that is what one of the airplane’s pilots said. My friends who fly planes with radial engines don’t know what this means and neither do I. Certainly it doesn’t mean anything for pilots of a conventional piston-powered Cirrus or Cessna.

[Speculation: Aviation gasoline is leaded to prevent detonation. Spark plugs are subject to lead fouling and a fouled plug will cause the engine to run rough. In the event of a failed magneto check during the preflight run-up, a technique for clearing the fouled plug and restoring the engine to smooth operation is to lean the mixture (less fuel per unit of air) and run the engine up to a reasonably high power setting on the ground. I haven’t heard anyone refer to this procedure as “blow it out,” but perhaps that is what was meant.]

After this exchange, the radio exchanges were essentially ordinary until the plane landed short of Runway 06, damaging the approach lights (out of service by NOTAM issued shortly after the crash: “RWY 06 ALS U/S 1910021702-1910092000EST”), and eventually veered off into the de-ice area to the right of the runway (airport diagram). The ILS 6 procedure says that the runways has an ALSF-2 approach lighting system and this FAA document says that those lights should start about 2,400′ before the runway pavement begins.

Flying a multi-engine plane after an engine failure is challenging due to the fact that the plane wants to yaw and roll (good explanation). If the pilots do everything right, the plane will fly slightly sideways and with reduced performance. That’s assuming a working feathering mechanism for the propeller on the dead engine, though, so that the prop blades can be turned into knife edges rather than massive speed brakes. After the initial reconfiguration and getting the prop feathered, touching down is the trickiest part. A plane flying slightly sideways through the air is inefficient. A plane going sideways off the runway is crashing.

[When I was fresh from my multi-engine instructor rating, I wrote up this page on how one trains for the failure of an engine on one side. See also my post about how I was unable to pull on the correct lever during my own training and our MIT ground school class, in which this topic is covered during Lecture 19 (PPT and video linked and free to download).]

Both pilots of this airplane died in the crash (Hartford Courant) so we may never find out exactly what happened. I looked them up in the FAA Airmen Registry:

Airplanes heavier than 12,500 lbs. or powered by turbojet engines required specific training and a checkride to add a “type rating” to fly that type of aircraft. The B-17 can take off at more than 50,000 lbs. and therefore requires a type rating for the captain. I believe that it also requires a two-pilot crew at a minimum (and in World War II was flown with two additional flight crew members: a flight engineer and a navigator). Depending on the operation, the second crew member need not be typed.

Michael Sean Foster, described in the media as the “co-pilot,” had a significant amount of aviation experience. He starts out with an Airline Transport Pilot certificate, the highest level, and is typed in three Boeing airliners, the DC-10, and the Learjet. He also holds an FAA Flight Engineer certificate, which would have qualified him to serve in this position in planes such as the DC-10. He was a Navy carrier pilot veteran. Ernest Herbert McCauley, who was serving as the “pilot”, held a Commercial certificate and was typed in the B-17. The NTSB credited McCauley with 7,300 hours of B-17 time; a World War II bomber pilot might have come home with 250 hours of total time in the B-17 (from 25 missions). He also held an FAA A&P certificate to perform maintenance on certified aircraft.

Weather cannot have been a factor. Tower reported “wind calm” just before the plane returned. The plane took off at 1348Z (9:48 am local time). The METAR from three minutes later: KBDL 021351Z 00000KT 10SM FEW110 FEW140 BKN180 23/19 A2981 (“Bradley Airport, October 2, 1351Z time, wind calm, 10 statute miles of visibility, few clouds 11,000′ above the airport elevation, few clouds 14,000′ above the airport, broken layer of clouds 18,000′ above the airport, temperature 23C, dewpoint 19C, altimeter setting 29.81”).

The Collings Foundation is a great organization, based here in Massachusetts as it happens, and everything that I’ve seen them do has been done with meticulous attention to safety, detail, and historical accuracy on a spare-no-expense basis.

Not having any B-17 training or time myself, that’s all that I know. It was good weather at a great airport, an aircraft that was likely maintained as well as possible, a plane that can fly safely on three engines, and two pilots with a tremendous depth of experience. Very saddened that it didn’t work out better.

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26 thoughts on “Boeing B-17 crash at Bradley

  1. I’m so sorry to hear this news. I was a passenger on that plane on May 17th, 2019 on a flight to and from Moffett Field in California. I was so impressed by how dedicated and knowledgeable both the air and ground crews were. They had such enthusiasm for that plane and the history that it represented, and they knew it inside and out, past and present. It was a wonderful experience flying low over Silicon Valley with them.

    Here are a few of the photos and videos I took that day:

    https://photos.app.goo.gl/je29QiuaaEyy4qgd7

    My sympathies go out to the families and friends of all those involved in this crash.

  2. I’m not a pilot, but an engineer with years of IC experience…I would like to know if anyone else thinks this might be a case of bad fuel…being IC radial engines, would the fuel be gasoline vs kerosene for a jet? Could the two been accidentally mixed from a depot? Reports were the engines were sputtering or had backfires and one died…a Wright engine is pretty robust, so I would think this a likely cause…but because of the fire, no fuel remains to be analyzed…

    • Hello Joseph Bango, I thought about that too, but if I’m not mistaken there were other piston/prop planes flying that day too part of the show…it would stand to reason (if that was the case) that the other planes would have had that issue as well…but who knows…I myself went on this plane back in September 7th out of Waterbury-Oxford airport…that flight was smooth with no issues…only thing we can do for the time being is pray I guess…God bless them and their families.

    • Hi Steve…I was there too at Waterbury airport and went aboard the plane with my son…the plane was in great condition…you make a good point about other planes that day of the crash flying without issues…it now occurs to me with one wing still intact, there may be fuel to test…from the conversation with the ground, I took “blowing it out” as being an engine the pilots felt needed to be run up to clear carbon or plug fouling…if it were on fire, I’m sure they would have stated such to the tower…these guys were incredibly skilled aviators…they were caught off guard by whatever happened…I feel so awful for all aboard…

    • GCMS analysis of any fuel system residue should be able to identify the fuel(s) being used even fire extinguishing contaminants.

  3. There is a Reddit thread on /r/aviation where several people reported the plane had been mistakenly refueled with Jet A. When one engine quite shortly after takeoff the crew were not terribly concerned- they’re experienced, and the plane can fly with three engines- but it would make sense that the Jet A would progress to the other engines as they were approaching the runway, and they lost at least one more engine with no altitude to recover.

    Many pictures and videos of the airplane have been posted today, including the takeoff and a video showing the NTSB investigators. Sad day.

    https://www.reddit.com/r/aviation/comments/dce3m1/my_favorite_picture_of_the_b17_that_crashed_in/

    • I don’t have any information about the fueling of the accident airplane, but both of the FBOs at KBDL are excellent so it wouldn’t be like them to make a mistake (as odd as it is to pull a 100LL truck up to a 50,000 lb. airplane in 2019).

      Note that new airplanes are protected from being misfueled because the Jet A fuel nozzle is too large to fit into the tank. (It isn’t a serious problem in the reverse direction; if 100LL gets put into a turbine engine, the engine will still run, though you’re not supposed to do it on a regular basis.) I don’t know if the B-17 had been retrofitted with a filler neck that would make it tough to get Jet A in there by mistake.

      https://www.aopa.org/news-and-media/all-news/2015/december/pilot/landmark

      has some information on this. See also http://aerossurance.com/safety-management/wrong-fuel-pa31-accident/

      From reports that I have read, there is typically smoke coming out of piston engines that are misfueled with Jet A. Here’s an example from Karl-Heinz Zahorsky, a German pilot who went around the world in a Piper (the control tower called him just after takeoff to tell him about the smoke):

      PRISONERS OF THE EASTER ISLAND

      Unfortunately the fuel (AVGAS) we finally got with the ship from Valparaiso in 2 barrels and put into our Malibu ruined our take-off as black smoke was trailing us and we quickly aborted our take-off and landed safely on the airport.

      If we would have continued after a while the engine would have stopped as these engines are made for AVGAS – Aviation Gasoline and not Kerosine which is for Jets or Turboprops.

      Fortunately our engine was not damaged as a Borescope examination (a specialist had to come from Santiago) has shown. Now we are waiting for getting the right fuel – which might happen next week hopefully, because now we are already here for more than 6 weeks – but not the worst place to stay a bit longer –

  4. Talking about other warbirds someone mentioned that during the war they used 150 octane instead of the 100LL we have nowadays. Perhaps the lower octane reduces the power output that maybe contributed to the failure to maintain altitude. Just me thinking.

    • Otto: Thanks for that. I have heard of some differences in operation between radial engines and the horizontally opposed piston engines that are common on modern low-power piston planes, but I have never heard of anyone having to blow moisture out.

    • Some of the old radial magnetos have issues with moisture penetration. Perhaps if they had to resolve that on the ground with #4 before takeoff, they assumed incorrectly that a right-side engine failure was #4 since they had just had issues with that, when in fact #3 failed instead? In that case they would have been flying along with #4 feathered, #3 failed but not feathered, and relatively low & slow while figuring it out.

  5. They were having problems before take off. They shut down engines and the pilot got out to check out no. 4. At that point they should have cancelled the flight. The plane should have been able to fly on 3 . They hit 1000 feet short of the runway in the ils lights. Those are the only facts at this time. Plane had proper fuel. Pushing these old planes to perform like circus dogs for money is probably going to come under more scutenty by the feds. Sounds like collings screwed the pooch on this one. Mechanic should have grown a pair and grounded it. I’m betting nothing was documented in the log book. I’ve got 45 years as an a&p and actually cut my teeth on b-17 and c54 back in the fire bomber days. This is a bad scene from get go. BTW I’ve noticed alot of crashes involved pilots over 70. Just saying.

    • Mark: I don’t have your level of experience (and certainly no A&P certificate, as you have), but don’t airlines with modern planes also run into mechanical problems on a regular basis, delay flights while a mechanic sorts out the issue, and then resume operations with the signed-off aircraft? Cape Air has been operating its fleet of Cessna 402s (introduced in 1967) with turbocharged piston engines for decades and has an excellent safety record. Surely they sometimes have to delay a flight, replace a spark plug or whatever, and then launch with passengers.

    • Let’s see 7300+ Hours in a B-17 vs you? They always are messing and checking with older radial engines as you should well know.Mac’s age didn’t have anything to do with this crash,they were also extremely meticulous with logs books and maintenance,money was not an issue at the foundation,if it needed it they got it!

    • Thanks for you insight, Mark. Could it have been possible that they didn’t have enough airspeed and/altitude when they lost the engine, if only one, and thus couldn’t safely turn or make to the runway? I’ve done some jumping and that scenario is a serious problem with single engine, loaded planes.
      George Clarke

  6. Let’s leave it for the NTSB and the clergy for now. All we can do is reconsider the idea of joyriding in 75 year old warbirds. Not for me.

    • Agree on the NTSB.

      (To your point on “75-year-old warbirds”: I think it is obvious that a B-17 isn’t as safe as an Airbus A320. There were a lot of improvements in engineering during the second half of the 20th century. But I am not sure that age will prove to be a factor. Plenty of World War II airplanes had mechanical-related crashes during World War II, i.e., just a year or two after leaving the factory. Captain Sully was able to keep the stick full back on the “Miracle on the Hudson” landing and have the Airbus software engineers prevent what would have been a stall/spin in a predecessor airliner. Turbine engines seldom hiccup. We are wrapped in a safety cocoon when we get into modern airplanes, but I think it is more about the design of the aircraft than the fact that the aircraft is relatively young.)

  7. “Blow it out’means to.me there was excess moisture in the engine. It was not bad fuel. A few years ago I was in White Plains to watch the group take off to their next destination in PA. 9-0-9 started up up okay but after taxiing out, she came back with an engine shutdown. The Collings crew hooked up a hose and literally flushed out the excess moisture buildup. The engine was restarted, rough at first but smoothed out and they were on their way. We had had a lot of rain, the planes had not been able to go up and the engines are not covered. Apparently they are susceptible to the moisture build up. I don’t understand exactly where the water build up was….carburetor, exhaust system…one of those. But it certainly wasn’t the first time the problem had delayed a flight. When Mac said ‘blow it out’ to the tower that is what I assumed he meant.

  8. I think Marc Harris is on to something. Had a opportunity to go into both aircraft at Bradley circa early 1990s . Both were grounded by FAA with ground tags on the yokes. They were stuck at Bradley for nearly 3 months. As far as improper fuel, their is no way they could have made this mistake. Complacency and financial gain could have been large factors in this crash. I hope I am wrong but either way I believe this will spell the demise of warbirds allowing pax flights for a fee.

    • The question on fuel is, how is it transported and pumped? Did the Wright radials on the B17 use the same gasoline that private IC planes do and therefore have a fuel truck available for those used for the Wings of Freedom event, or was another truck or pumper that may have had JP8 service in the past pressed into service to pump/transfer fuel into the 17? The sputtering and backfiring on that engine sounded like a fuel issue and others may have started losing power, leading one to question fuel issues. Blowing out water as stated sounds strange…how much moisture could accumulate around all the cooling fins? After starting, run up, and taxiing, all moisture would be evaporated and gone. Was there a problem with the carburetor? Magneto? Considering the bomb load a B17 was designed to carry, running on three engines should not have them come up short on an emergency landing unless other engines were losing power, hence looking again at a fuel issue…

  9. So, the prelim report by the NTSB was published today and mentions that blades on the number 3 engine were shown to be “between low gear and feather”, and the blades of the number 4 engine were fully feathered. Can anyone more experienced help me understand these comments? Does this indicate that maybe someone started to feather the wrong prop, number 3 instead of number 4? Or, maybe they were starting to see an issue with number 3 engine as well? Thoughts anyone?

  10. I’m thinking the same thing as Jerry. Lost number 4 and possibly #3 or mistake feather ing #3 .
    That’s a lot of drag on right side .The plane did go off the right side of the runway .
    Dosent explain loss of altitude tho .
    The feather switch can be ganged or indavidualy switched
    Hope they get to the bottom of it soon would be interesting to know
    Rip 909 and crew

    • Agreed a lit was happening real fast so the pilots may have missed feathering number 3…its not fair to second guess them…it seems they did everything they could with events unfolding quickly. My question to everyone is how does a magneto become flaky? If the insulation breaks down, wouldn’t that be seen earlier and have the plane grounded? Were Wright engine magnetos known to be flaky with high humidity and if so, would FAA allow them to be replaced with an electronic ignition?

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