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.

26 thoughts on “Going Direct: B-17 Crash Ignites Warbird Controversy

  1. Well, like every politician, bureaucrat, or regulator, the first knee jerk reaction is to find fault and then lay blame. Anything to grab a headline or garner votes is the politician’s mantra. How many times do we see them in front of a camera espousing knowledge on something they nothing about. We just have to weather the storm and wait for the NTSB’s report. Just a reminder, flying is a dangerous activity and no regulation will ever prevent the unexpected.

  2. The loss and injury of flight crew and passengers of course should not be taken lightly but anyone jumping to conclusions should let the NTSB do their job before offering “solutions”.
    I’m not a pilot but like those passengers that day I love vintage aircraft. I’ve flown on 909, as well as most all of the Collings (and other’s) aircraft several times over the years. I did so willingly and gladly accepted any risk. It was my choice and the experiences we’re some of the best of my life. (As a supporter, my name was even inscribed on 909’s bomb bay door.) I know that the Collings flight and ground crews maintained those planes diligently and with loving care. 909’s pilot, Mac was a skilled pilot and mechanic – he was always safety conscious. Veterans I’ve known have revisited their old aircraft and rekindled and shared memories.
    Safety recommendations may be made but I sincerely hope that these passenger carrying flights can continue for years to come so others can enjoy what thousands already have.

  3. a mm mm eeeeeeeee nn nn !!!!!!
    a a mm m m mm eeeeeeeee nn n nn !!!!!
    a a mm m m mm ee nn n nn !!!!
    aaaaa mm m mm eeeee nn n nn !!!
    aaaaaa mm mm ee nn n nn !!
    a a mm mm eeeeeeeeee nn n nn
    a a mm mm eeeeeeeeee nn n nn !!

    But you’re preaching to the choir. Get this message to those who just sit in their PHEW’s!

  4. Of course, you must give my message the appropriate spaces, since the comments section strips out repeat spaces.

  5. What a great article. Thank you Isabel.
    I hope the right people, in addition to the pilot community, get to read it.

  6. When a catastrophe occurs people weigh-in with their opinions. Some are more factually based than others, with a vocal subsubset of those that escape logic and let their emotions get the better of them. Certainly the more accurate assessments take into account all the factual evidence that can be carefully evaluated. Even then there will be mysteries that evade our understanding or multiple plausible conclusions can be drawn from the evidence available so what actually happened is only best guessed. That’s why the knee-jerk emotional reactionaries should really be locked-up and allowed to cool off before their vitriolic spew can influence the masses so eager to accept sensational unfounded reasoning especially when it will impact others in an unrecoverable manner (like demanding that all these “unsafe relics” should be decommissioned and stored in static display musems).

    At one time there was a more responsible form of journalism and publidhing but alas we live in the era of the social media plague where spontaneous fiction can be instantaneously posted online spawning an in-rush of uneducated like minded responses. Saner minds will allow time for all the evidence to be evaluated before attempting to form an opinion let alone promote their opinion as the definitive answer.

  7. Hi all, I am a fan of Warbirds of all shapes and sizes in all countries, having flown in a couple of warbirds as a passenger in England (UK).
    The guys that fly these do a brilliant marvellous job and always to the highest safety standards and safety providing enjoyment for all concerned with the flight, there are always people ready to criticize something they now little or nothing about, I am with you wholeheartedly, these people should keep their opinions to themselves at least till they have all the relative information, but even then they will most likely get it all wrong.
    I have flown in a Tigermoth twice and a Harvard once, a Spitfire would be nice but I don,t feel able to use the money for this once in a lifetime luxury.
    Keep the good work up and welldone to all Warbird Pilots everywhere.

  8. Isabel,
    I wouldn’t be too hard on Senator Blumenthal. The accident happened in his state and he is trying to make these war birds safer so we can all enjoy them. I flew on this very B17 last summer, and I was well aware of the risks. If there are steps that can be taken to make WWII aircraft safer to fly, why wouldn’t we want to consider them.

  9. Thank you Isobel,
    I have been watching this sad accident from afar (Australia) and wondering when someone was eventually going to inject some rational comment. Yes, as you clearly point out, the subject aircraft was not certified in Transport Category in any form, therefore pilots and operators, no matter how experienced and skilled, nor their enthusiast passengers are entitled to nor can expect the presumption of a similar level of safety. Yes, and I am hoping you are correct, fare paying passengers or not, there was informed consent in this regard.
    It is unfortunate that in this world ”blame” must be apportioned, perhaps partly in order to assuage the grief we all feel for the unfortunates and perhaps provide the opportunity for those in the legal profession wont to feed on it.
    Be that as it may, there was no malice aforethought in this operation save in the originally intended use of the aircraft to drop bombs on those who attempted to pervert our Western civilisations.
    And to provide an opportunity to experience what those many many thousands of brave young airmen endured in a wonderful piece of aviation history. My father was one of those in an equally famous British type.
    Being ”afar” it is difficult to easily partake in such opportunities.
    Would I were I able? In a heartbeat.

  10. Isabel,

    This time you nailed it, let’s all shut up and wait for the BUSH’s official findings. You hit the nail on the head again by saying seabirds are not built to airline standards, people should know that. Unfortunately, the families of those poor souls who perished will still litigate in spite of the savers they all signed and more significant, they will probably win in court. It’s very unfortunate for the GA community. But let’s not even attempt to point the finger at Senator Blumenthal. With or without him the families will find lawyers who will take their case, that’s just the sad nature of our society. I have little doubt that the NTSB will find in favor of pilot error and, inspite of signed waiver, the families will win in litigation and that’s a shame. The white should be thrown out of court but that won’t happen. However, let’s not forget that the PIC had the ultimate say and, if he did screw up the accident tests on his shoulders.

  11. Isabel congratulations to you for your insightful article and telling it like it is to ignorant Richard Blumenthal (the honorable title omitted intentionally as not earned) who has made so many other ignorant comments through out his career. I am sure that the actual result of the FAA investigation will answer any questions about the cause of the crash. Too often these so called politicians open their mouths long before the their tiny brains, which Richard B. is well noted for over the years.

    My uncle was a B-17 pilot lost in the closing months of the war in Europe who like many before him put their country before their concern of the aircraft certification and safety concerns of a great aircraft.

  12. Typical, people with opinions and no knowledge, and as I have said in the past, you have the right to your opinion if you’re educated on the subject. Other wise you don’t have the right to an opinion.

  13. Aside from the regrettable accident and the lives lost, the worst possible outcome is that people with little or no knowledge and love for war birds are now in a position to weigh in on the matter. Never mind that ignorance seems to rule, that those flying know the risk, that this is not an airline operation, and so on.
    The historic aircraft community must make every effort to take back control of the narrative and educate those willing to learn.

  14. Good comments and clearly stated ‘whys’ and ‘hows’. As a member of the CAF your arguments make sense, and are accurate.

  15. Great article!!! I saw this senator comment on this within an hour or two after the crash. What an idiot!!! Again, a liberal politician that thinks he needs to save us from ourselves.
    I flew on the Aluminum Overcast two years ago and I told my wife the exact thing you mentioned, I am not getting on an airliner and something could happen. It did not and was one of the most spectacular times of my aviation experience. I will fly on it again without hesitation.
    We must keep these aircraft flying an continue to educate everyone we can about their purpose, mission and what these great airplanes did for where we are today!

  16. Senator Blumenthal has once again demonstrated his limited knowledge of a subject he feels he must address in order to save the masses. By the time the NTSB/FAA release their findings, he will have moved on to other topics which he perceives demands his expertise.

  17. thank U for your view!! I fully agree that they should continue to fly as long as possible. They are beautiful to watch and hear, and a wonderful curiosity. I was at Butler regional AP ( BTP) a week prior to the accident to watched ( 909) taxi, run-up and move down the 5000 ft (5500 ft?) run-way and slowly leave the ground rising 500 or so ft and then make a gradual left turn to the south and continue to pass over the field on it’s way toward the town of Butler, PA 6 miles to the north and west. Probably at 1500 or 2000′ altitude the slow moving dinassoures of the sky moved beyond my sight.
    I was curious of the difficult the craft had to gain altitude, probably with only a half dozen occupants compared to the three or 5 tons of bombs it was to carry in battle. Reading the reports that number four engine went out , I assumed thay the engines were worn-out & couldn’t proform as they once did. My opinion changed a few hours ago when a line-man at the Regional AP told me that he learned an in-experienced line-man had fuelled with jet fuel instead of 100 oct .etc.

  18. Senator Blumenthal should be the last one on earth to opine on Warbird safety! His highly embellished self proclamation of wartime service was completely debunked as a political lie. He is a total fraud and a scumbag! Unfortunately however these are perfect credentials for a Senator of this day and again. Sad times! He needs a history lesson!

  19. What bothers me the most and I guess it is more a question is how a pilot with over 7,300 hours in the B-17 lost control and led to this incident. I am sure a cockpit voice recorder would be an invaluable tool to the NTSB in this instance as it would help to paint the picture for them as to what happened and how to prevent it from happening again. I am by no means a proponent of adding voice recorders to all airplanes or flight data recorders either just that I’m sure it could help them understand exactly what went wrong in the cockpit leading up to the incident.

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