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.