Collings Foundation is much-admired nationally, but neighbors have issues with flights
By JOSH KOVNER | The Hartford Courant | Published: October 7, 2019
HARTFORD, Conn. (Tribune News Service) — Revered across the country as vintage aviation preservationists, the father and son behind the nonprofit Collings Foundation, owner of the B-17 that crashed last week at Bradley International Airport, have had a turbulent relationship with some of the neighbors around their museum and airfield in picturesque Stow, Mass.
A case that centers on whether the town has the right to regulate or even ban a private, non-commercial airfield is heading toward a hearing in Massachusetts land court, the latest development in a yearslong dispute between the town and the foundation.
Flights by smaller vintage aircraft “fly extremely low while landing (less than 100 feet) directly over my residence,” wrote Barton Road neighbor Linda S. Cornell in a sworn affidavit filed with the land court division of Commonwealth Court in July 2016.
The town of Stow has a population of 6,590 on 18 square miles. The Collings property, with a large hangar, museum building and grass airfield, sits between Lake Boon and the Assabet River.
In the interim between public events at the museum and airfield, “I have personally witnessed the Collings’ biplane frequently doing acrobatics, loops, cutting out of the engine, and ‘death spirals’ in our densely populated area,” Cornell wrote.
The “race of the century” event “features a biplane flying only feet from the ground racing a car,” Cornell wrote.
In 2014, 86 area residents petitioned the town to order the foundation to cease using the airfield, according to the affidavit.
For Robert Collings Jr., son of the founder of the foundation and the museum, the issue in Stow is one that has been replayed countless times across the country.
“There hasn’t been an airfield in America that has operated without complaint from some neighbors,” Collings told The Courant on Friday. “We have operated within the jurisdiction and rules of the FAA for the purpose of take-offs and landings."
His father, a successful former digital entrepreneur, created the airfield out of farmland in the 1970s, and controversy over the airstrip lingers today.
Collings said his family and the foundation have tried to be good neighbors. After residents complained about the volume of automobile traffic coming to the museum’s public events, the foundation rerouted a road away from the neighbors, he said.
Collings said he could not comment on the crash of the B-17 Flying Fortress that killed seven and injured seven others at Bradley Airport on Wednesday. He said he is waiting with others to learn the results of the National Transportation Safety Board investigation. The NTSB has said the probe could take 12 to 18 months.
The foundation’s vintage aircraft travel the country and are open for people to tour. The organization also offers 30- to 40-minute flight experiences on the bombers for a $450 donation. The B-17 in Wednesday’s crash, one of about 10 in the country considered to be airworthy, was one of five planes — two fighter planes and three bombers — that were at the airport last week for tours and flights through the organization’s Wings of Freedom tour. The Bradley stop was the organization’s third in Connecticut in the past month.
About a dozen of the smaller vintage planes are housed at the airfield in Stow.
A new museum opened in May with vintage planes, cars and military tanks. Among the rest of the 85 major artifacts on display are a boat that landed on D-Day, and sections of the Berlin Wall and the World Trade Center.
Collings said it’s a “world-class museum.”
With the reverence for the Collings Foundation’s preservation work and its “Living History Flight Experience” has come some serious private financial support.
The foundation listed 51 contributors on its 2016 financial filing, with individual donations ranging from $5,000 to $3.6 million.
But the airstrip has been an issue in Stow.
Town zoning regulations have traditionally prohibited private, non-commercial airfields, said town administrator William Wrigley.
With the Collings Foundation disputing that authority, the question heading to court becomes: “whether statutes give towns the right to control private airfields through zoning,” Wrigley said Friday.
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