Going Direct: B-17 Crash Ignites Warbird Controversy

Photo by Everett Historical/Shutterstock

The crash last week of Boeing B-17 Nine-O-Nine that killed seven people, including both pilots, has sparked a reaction among both friends and foes of warbirds. In my piece last week about the unfortunate and, to be honest, largely ignorant commentary by non-experts on the crash, I laid out my views. In this case especially, we pilots need to just shut up and wait for the NTSB report, which will in all likelihood take a year to complete.

To be honest, it wasn’t the ignorance of the type and the skills it takes to fly the B-17 that set me off. Lord knows, my knowledge of that spectacular aircraft is scant. It was the fact that a number of commenters believed that they knew precisely what they would have done in that instance to save the day. And they actually said so online while still not knowing what happened. Do they have any idea how complex an aircraft the Flying Fortress is? I could go on but won’t.

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Instead, let’s discuss another infuriating trend in the aftermath of the crash of Nine-O-Nine—the call to in various ways more heavily regulate warbirds.

Ignorant commenters on the tragedy are in good company, as United States Senator Richard Blumenthal wasted no time in calling for a review of the exemption that the FAA granted the Collings Foundation to be able to fly the B-17 with paying passengers.  He also wondered aloud why such planes aren’t required to be equipped with “black boxes,” by which we’re guessing he means flight data recorders (FDRs) and cockpit voice recorders (CVRs).

Depending on the state of federal regulations at the time a commercial aircraft is certificated, flight data recorders capture a handful to hundreds of flight parameters. In order to do this, they need to be equipped in airplanes “smart” enough to be able to “talk” to the recorder. It’s for this reason that commercial airliners of a certain size that were built in, let’s say 1990, that are still flying, are only made to meet the requirements that were in place when they were originally approved. So, not only was the Boeing B-17 not equipped with a flight data recorder, but it wasn’t required to be, and it couldn’t accommodate an FDR if it were mandated. You’d have to redesign and rebuild the airplane from scratch. So that’s why, Senator.

His other point, that we need to look at exemptions granted to warbirds to carry paying passengers, is actually well taken, although he seems to misunderstand the very nature of that issue, as well.

The Collings Foundation, among many other historic aircraft and warbird conservationists, get an exemption from the FAA to carry passengers and charge them for the ride based not on how the aircraft is certificated, as he seems to suggest, but on how the organization cares for the planes, how its pilots are vetted and trained, and how safe their operations are. It has nothing to do with how those planes were certificated in the first place because, surprise, Senator, they weren’t. They were built for the war effort in order to pave the way for our ultimate invasion of Nazi Germany. Their design wasn’t predicated upon the safety of the people flying aboard, but on the plane’s ability to perform a mission, which was to drop a lot of bombs on Germany to bring the rogue nation to its knees, which it did.


Warbirds should be flown and not prettied up and put on a post somewhere (though I’m not opposed to doing that when the circumstances demand). Preservation is the key. These machines are masterpieces of design and historic mileposts in the history of aviation and the history of the modern world.

But part of that preservation is to keep them flying, which organizations like the Collings Foundation and the Commemorative Air Force and EAA, all do, to their great credit, I might add.

Should the people who pay to fly on these old planes be apprised that they’ll be flying on an aircraft that in terms of safety features wasn’t built to airliner standards, thank goodness? And should they be told that flying on these incredible historic artifacts a few times around the patch is riskier than flying on an Airbus to Burbank?

The answer to both of those questions is a qualified “yes,” the qualification being that they already are informed of that fact and sign on the dotted line that they have been so informed.


Why do they sign anyways? You and I know the answer to this question in our bones. It’s why we fly. Senator Blumenthal, on the other hand, seems to be at sea on this one as he works to protect people from their own wishes and dreams.


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