A World War II-era bomber plane that crashed as it tried to land in Connecticut on Wednesday was a familiar sight in Missoula and around Montana.
The Collings Foundation of Massachusetts brought the Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress, nicknamed Nine-O-Nine, to the Museum of Mountain Flying at least five times with other warbirds. The first was in 1993, and the most recent was in July 2017.
In each of the past two summers, it made stops at other cities in Montana, including Kalispell this July.
“For somebody like me and so many other World War II and aviation nuts, it was so neat to fly in that thing,” said Stan Cohen, former director of the Museum of Mountain Flying who was in charge of bringing the Wings of Freedom national tour to town via the nonprofit Collings Foundation of Stow, Massachusetts.
The bomber was in its third day of a four-day stay at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, when it crashed into a de-icing facility and erupted into flames. Seven of the 13 people on board died, including pilot Ernest McCauley, 75, of Long Beach, California, and co-pilot Michael Foster, 71, of Jacksonville, Florida. A third crewman, light engineer Mitchell Melton of Dalhart, Texas, escaped with injuries. The other five fatal victims were passengers from either Massachusetts or Connecticut, as were the five who survived.
The Missoula flying museum, home of the famous DC-3 Miss Montana, held a season-ending volunteer appreciation barbecue Thursday night. Chief pilot and museum president Eric Komberec said Thursday afternoon a condolence card to the Collings Foundation would be passed around to everyone to sign.
“It was a terrible tragedy, (and) our thoughts and prayers are with their families and friends,” said Komberec, who was flying on fires in Colorado for Neptune Aviation.
“For aviation, especially the warbird world, it’s a small, small world,” said Bryan Douglass, a pilot who with Komberec masterminded the rehabilitation of Miss Montana to fly to Normandy, France, this spring for the 75th anniversary of D-Day. “After having been through a number of these tragedies, the right thing to do is say a prayer for victims and families and do whatever you can to help. The biggest thing is not to speculate on the cause (of the crash).
“When someone speculates, they’re almost always wrong, so it’s inappropriate. Everybody I know who’s been around these things are very careful to avoid doing it.”
The Collings Foundation replaced all other content on its website Thursday with a message: “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 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.”
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board said Thursday that McCauley, the pilot, had flown with the Collings Foundation for more than 20 years and had 7,300 hours flying the bombers.
“He was probably the most qualified B-17 pilot in the world,” Douglass said.
The two DC-3/C-47s at the Museum of Mountain Flying are both airworthy. Miss Montana, manufactured in 1944, has been especially active since returning from Europe in June, flying groups of fans around Missoula and other cities. Most recently, the former smokejumper and cargo plane participated in a 10-day relief effort in the Bahamas, flying tens of thousands of meals to victims of Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas.
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The plane made its last runs last week but remained in Florida on Thursday waiting for a weather window to fly back to Missoula.
“I have the utmost confidence in our airplanes, our maintenance staff and our pilots,” Komberec said in a text. “We are all highly trained aviation professionals and sometimes unexplained events happen. It just so happens this tragedy was in an older airplane.”
“We’re confident” in Miss Montana, Douglass said. “We fly in it all the time. The pilots and mechanics are always learning, and they should be. But it’s really no different than any other risk in your life that you’re involved in.
“These airplanes are safe, and I think Collings has safe and reliable airplanes.”
Nine-O-Nine was an eye catcher when it landed in Missoula in 2017 from Lewiston, Idaho, along with another heavy bomber, a B-24 Liberator, along with a B-25 Mitchell and a P-51 Mustang fighter.
Vince Werner of Missoula, 95 at the time, climbed onto the plane after reminiscing about flying in a Flying Fortress to war as navigator during World War II. They crossed the Atlantic Ocean from Brazil to west Africa before turning north to Italy.
Navigating 1,900 miles across the ocean was challenging with a fuel range of 2,000 miles, but it was a memorable experience, Werner told the Missoulian’s Lucy Tompkins.
“Well, I had the biggest thrill that day of flying over the equator and the spring equinox,” he said. “So the sun, the single body, was up directly above, so I could get a shot on it as far as it went from east to west, and I got a fix on a single body out in the middle of the Atlantic.”
Cohen said streams of people showed up at the Missoula airport to climb into or ride in the B-17 and other warbirds. Veterans were admitted free but other adults paid $15 and children $5 to explore the aircrafts on the ground. Flights on the B-17 or the B-24 cost $450, and B-25 flights cost $400 a person. A P-51 flight was even steeper — $2,200 for a half hour and $3,200 for a full hour.
The P-51 spent a busy three days, he recalled, but the others “were having mechanical problems for whatever reason,” he remembered. “I don’t think the B-25 ever got off the ground, and the B-17, they may have gone up once in it.”
He feels for the Collings Foundation and other companies that offer live-history experiences with vintage planes.
“This is a big tragedy for this business,” Cohen said. “It’s probably going to shake up the entire exhibition aircraft business all over the country.”