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Lawsuit Details Final Moments Of Deadly Bradley B-17 Crash

This image taken from video provided by the National Transportation Safety Board shows damage from a World War II-era B-17 bomber that crashed at Bradley International Airport on Oct. 2, 2019.
This image taken from video provided by the National Transportation Safety Board shows damage from a World War II-era B-17 bomber that crashed at Bradley International Airport on Oct. 2, 2019.

Survivors and family members of deceased passengers are suing the owner and operator of a vintage World War II airplane that crashed at Bradley International Airport last year, killing seven people.

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In a wrongful death complaint filed Tuesday, the plaintiffs allege the crash resulted from the “negligence, recklessness, and callous indifference” of the Collings Foundation, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit.

The foundation’s vintage B-17 bomber crashed on a runway at Bradley on Oct. 2, 2019. 

Upon impact, the plane struck a deicing tank and caught fire. The pilot and co-pilot were both killed. Five passengers also died. The crew chief and five passengers were injured, according to a preliminary crash report issued by the National Transportation Safety Board.

In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for the Collings Foundation said the NTSB investigation into the crash remains open and that federal regulations prohibit the foundation “from commenting on this matter and disseminating information that is the subject of this investigation.”

But Tuesday’s nearly 200-page court complaint provides much more detail about the crash. 

Before takeoff, the complaint said the foundation’s flight crew failed to adequately brief passengers about aircraft safety and the plane’s emergency exits. The complaint said several passengers were also seated on the floor and restrained using “unfamiliar” military-style buckles.

“The Crew Chief warned them not to tighten their extremely loose seatbelts because they would be too difficult to readjust after the flight,” the complaint said. 

After a nearly 50-minute ground delay while the crew worked on engine issues, the complaint said, passengers were allowed to freely roam the plane “immediately after takeoff.”

As the plane struggled to gain altitude, NTSB investigators said the pilot quickly radioed to request landing clearance but “denied needing any assistance” as the aircraft descended from an altitude of about 500 feet. Lawyers for the plaintiffs said the pilot failed to declare an emergency.

“Shortly after takeoff and without any explanation, the Crew Chief signaled to the Passengers that they needed to sit back down and buckle up,” the complaint said.

“Neither the Pilot in Command nor any of the other crewmember [sic] informed the Passengers of the flight's peril, advised them what to do or instructed them to brace for a crash,” the complaint said. “The Passengers were left to presume what was happening.”

The plane did crash, veering off the runway and striking several vehicles along with a deicing fluid tank. Several passengers were ejected from their seats, according to the court document, and a fire immediately started in the fuselage. 

Two passengers escaped through a shattered window, while others escaped from the plane’s rear hatch. The complaint alleges at least three others were ejected from their seatbelts and died in the fire. 

A later investigation found maintenance on the aircraft’s engines to be lacking, according to a March 25 report from the Federal Aviation Administration

That report said the B-17 had rigged wiring on one of its engines, which contributed to critical components failing prior to the crash. The report also cited piecemeal maintenance records for the airplane. 

The FAA letter also highlighted the issue of seatbelts. Officials said that “no seat with a seatbelt” on the aircraft existed for the plane’s crew chief, who federal officials said was not properly trained to handle aircraft emergencies. The crew chief survived but was seriously injured.

“In an interview with the FAA on March 2, 2020, the crew chief verified that he received no initial training and was unaware of basic information concerning operations,” the report said. “Instead, he only received on-the-job training.”

Despite issues with an aircraft that was built in 1944, the FAA said it recently received over 1,500 comments in support of a federal waiver that would allow Collings to continue to fly nearly a dozen of its historical aircraft. 

“Most of these comments were from individuals who cited the historical and sentimental value of allowing living history flights to continue,” wrote Robert Carty, deputy executive director of flight standards service at the FAA.

Despite the petitioning, Carty denied Collings’ request to extend the airworthiness waiver. 

“Given the facts of the accident on Oct. 2, 2019, and the subsequent evidence of Collings’s lack of compliance,” Carty wrote, “… the FAA has determined that granting the exemption … would not be in the public interest because of the adverse effect on safety.”

In a statement late Tuesday afternoon, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said the lawsuit’s allegations were “damning -- highlighting numerous safety failures that resulted in injury and death.”

“These failures -- directly contradicting Collings’ promises to the FAA and the public -- demonstrate the urgent FAA obligation to significantly increase oversight of such organizations,” Blumenthal said. “The FAA must commit to ensure more effective supervision to ensure the safety of passengers, crew members and the public.”

Copyright 2020 Connecticut Public

Patrick Skahill is a reporter at WNPR. He covers science and the environment. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of WNPR's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached by phone at 860-275-7297 or by email: pskahill@ctpublic.org.