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Senator questions FAA exemption that allowed passengers to fly in B-17

A Oct. 2, 2019 file photo shows the scene of a WWII B-17 bomber crash at Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Conn.

KASSI JACKSON, HARTFORD COURANT/TNS

By NICHOLAS RONDINONE | The Hartford Courant | Published: October 7, 2019

HARTFORD, Conn. (Tribune News Service) — In a letter sent Monday to the head of the Federal Aviation Administration, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal questioned an exemption that allowed passengers to fly in a 75-year-old B-17 bomber that crashed last week at Bradley International Airport, killing seven people and injuring seven others.

Blumenthal questioned inspection and maintenance requirements for the vintage Boeing plane, according to the Oct. 7 letter to the FAA. In the letter, Blumenthal cites a separate letter, dated March 22, 2018, from the FAA to Robert F. Collings Jr., executive director of The Collings Foundation, which owned and operated the plane, that states that the FAA extended the exemption allowing the plane to fly with paid passengers through 2020.

In it, John S. Duncan, a high-ranking FAA executive, wrote: “In your petition, [Collings Foundation] indicate that there has been no change in the conditions and reasons relative to public interest and safety that were the basis for granting original exemption.”

The B-17 bomber is allowed to operate under an FAA exemption to private and commercial regulations that allow for “Living History" flights of restored, vintage aircraft. The exemption allows operators to carry passengers in historical aircraft that have “a limited or experimental airworthiness certificate,” the FAA said. The doomed B-17 flown by Collings was one of fewer than 20 left in the world.

The seven-page letter from Duncan outlining requirements of the exemption said the Collings Foundation must maintain the aircraft according to the foundation’s own manual, appropriate military manuals and according to a program approved by the FAA, but provided no specifics.

“It is unclear from the exemption letter what specific inspection protocols were required in order for this vintage plane to fly with passengers,” Blumenthal wrote in his Oct. 7 letter that also outlines detailed questions about FAA regulations and requirements for safety inspection requirements for vintage planes.

Collings Foundation asked for and received the exemption in 2001 and it was renewed at least once in 2018, allowing the foundation to solicit $450 donations for brief flights in the B-17. The exact requirements for maintenance and inspections are not outlined in expansive FAA documents about vintage planes, nor are they outlined in the FAA correspondence released by Blumenthal.

However, the FAA's March 28 letter extending Collings' exemption does spell out in what instances the foundation must notify the FAA about the performance of a Collings aircraft.

This applied to the B-17 and nine other vintage military aircraft owned by the foundation.

For example, the FAA must be told of any fire, exhaust problem, noxious odors or fumes, engine shut-down, landing-gear problem, brake loss, major repair, fuel-system, tank or valve malfunction, or emergency action taken during flight for any reason.

Collings must also document all the training it provides and develop a series of training, operational, maintenance and safety manuals.

While Blumenthal said the planes are a part of history and should be respected, they also must be safe to fly.

“Part of our respect for those planes is should be to make sure they are safe whenever they are flown," Blumenthal said. “The FAA must justify any gray area in these regulations.”

The 75-year-old World War II bomber took off from Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks about 9:45 a.m. on Wednesday. A pilot told air traffic control minutes later that they were having some engine trouble, investigators said.

The plane turned back to the runway, but struck approach lights about 1,000 feet from the end of the runway. It hit a de-icing facility at the south end of the airport at 9:53 a.m. and burst into flames. Seven people were killed in the crash, including the pilot and co-pilot. Seven others were injured, including one employee from the de-icing facility.

Following reports the plane was having engine problems before and after take off, the National Transportation Safety Board, leading the probe into the deadly crash, secured the plane’s four piston-driven engines for further examination.

“There are a lot of factors here. It may be a mechanical issue it or may not be,” NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy said Friday. She acknowledged that NTSB heard the reports, but it is “too early to draw any conclusions.”

Law enforcement sources told the Courant that the Collings Foundation, the owner and operator of the historic plane, were aware of engine problems before take off on Wednesday morning.

The FAA’s letter on the exemption said that Collings Foundation must report to its FAA Field Standards District Office within 24 hours if there are specifics problems with the planes and lists specific components but does not explicitly mention issues with the plane’s engine. The foundation is required to submit a report for any airplane structure that “requires major repair due to damage, deformation or corrosion and the method of repair.”

The NTSB, working with a contractor, removed the wreckage of the plane from Bradley Airport on Friday to a secure sight. Despite heavy fire, officials said a portion of the tail, the two wings, four fuel tanks and a flight control panel remained.

Investigators also received a trove of maintenance and inspection records from both the company and the FAA, but did not disclose much about what the records showed. Homendy said the plane’s last major inspection was in January 2019.

The plan was FAA-certified through November 2022, records show.

It could be up to 10 days from the crash before NTSB releases a preliminary report on their findings and 12 to 18 months before they complete the investigation and provide a reason for what caused the deadly crash.

The letter from the FAA also outlines the limited conditions under which the foundation’s vintage planes can fly, including a limitation of a 50-mile radius from the departing airport, that it only operate during daylight and within strict limits on visibility and cloud ceiling.

Collings Foundation, which received an exemption for 10 planes including the B-17 that crashed Wednesday, said Friday they were suspending all public flights through the end of the year and cooperating fully with the NTSB and other investigators.

nrondinone@courant.com

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