Comment Of The Day: “Open Forum, And An Idea….,” B-17 Crash Thread

The first Comment of the Day to arise from the recent Open Forum is on a topic that never occurred to me before: one more indicia of how well readers here respond to the challenge of keeping the blog vital when I am called away. Here’s a summary from the AP:

“…a deadly crash in Connecticut this week of [a] B-17 has cast a pall over the band of brothers — and sisters — who enjoy riding in vintage planes and raised questions of whether machinery over 70 years old should be flying passengers.

The propeller-driven 1945 bomber went down at the Hartford airport on Wednesday, killing seven of the 13 people aboard, after the pilot reported engine trouble on takeoff. The cause of the fiery wreck is under investigation.

Arthur Alan Wolk, a lawyer who specializes in crash litigation in Philadelphia, said Friday that the accident shows the risks associated with flying old planes: They break. He said the rules for operating vintage aircraft are stringent, but he questioned whether compliance and training are adequate.

“The engines are old with no new parts being manufactured for decades,” he wrote in a blog post. “Even in service these aircraft needed the resources of a government to keep them flying. The aircraft and engines were never intended to last this long so intense maintenance and inspections are vital to continued safety.”

Frequent commenter Other Bill raised the issue, writing in part,

Ten or fifteen Christmases ago, I took my son and son-in-law on a one hour flight in a B-17 out of Falcon Field in Mes, Arizona. It was mind-boggling in so many ways. Incredibly crude and rickety. I can’t imagine flying in it at altitude for twelve hours, never mind enemy fighters and flak. Was it responsible to put my son and son in law at such risk in a plane built in a hurry to last for twenty five missions sixty or seventy years, an entire lifetime, after its construction? Should all warbirds be grounded and placed on static display? Seeing them fly brings tears to my eyes, but is the risk worth it?

His musings sparked this Comment of the Day from Steve O in NJ:

Hmmmm. I guess you have to measure the number of warbirds flying versus the number of accidents and the number of fatal accidents. Don’t forget, the FAA has some very stringent rules in place as to what standards an aircraft, especially an antique, needs to meet before it is allowed to fly. Flying is by nature risky, even with modern equipment.

Over the years 27 of the 261 pilots who have passed through the Blue Angels have been killed in crashes or other accidents, roughly 10%. So every man (no female demo pilots on that team yet, although the USAF Thunderbirds have had at least 2) who suits up with that team has a 1 in 10 chance of dying, statistically. Does that mean we should ground them? Italy’s Frecce Tricolori (Tricolor Arrows) demo team had a disastrous crash in 1988 that killed 3 pilots and 67 spectators. They’re still flying (saw them myself last year) and no one talks about disbanding them.

Warbird flying is more so, because of the fact you are dealing with very old aircraft and crude equipment by today’s standards. However, those who fly them accept the risk. The same goes for show flying, particularly with these aircraft so small you are almost wearing them rather than piloting them. I have to add that in 2016 the American Airpower Museum’s P-47 “Jacky’s Revenge” suffered engine failure during a promotional flight over the Hudson, crashed, and sank, drowning the pilot. The remaining AAM pilots and aircraft continue to soldier on, however.

I think we should wait and see what the NTSB says. From what I heard this partly sounds like a mechanical issue, but partly also possibly like a pilot error. Those are two things that are impossible to totally prevent, and, if all required maintenance was performed on schedule and everything checks out, this may well end up just being one of those disasters that no one could have seen coming and no one could have done anything more about than was done.

Only you can decide if it was okay to take your relatives up in the B-17. Presumably the crew briefed you on the risks and you had to sign paperwork to that effect. If they were adults, they made their own choices. Now, dealing with the question of whether it is ethical to OFFER those rides, I’d say it is no more unethical to offer them than to offer hang glider rides, parachute jumps, bungee jumping, or other thrill experiences that, if done wrong, could result in a fatality. It is no more unethical to offer them than it is to teach kids risky sports like football, hockey, or gymnastics, and maybe less so since kids might not grasp the risks.

As for grounding the entire warbird fleet (well over 200 aircraft in the US only), my response is “are you kidding me?” That’s the same mentality that says that all guns should be banned because a few crazy people abuse them. Never mind the fact that there is an educational component to them flying. Never mind the fact that they bring history to life the way books can’t. You ground them all, and you kill the airshow industry’s second biggest draw (the military aircraft, of which there are a very limited number dedicated to the industry, being the biggest). The airshow promoters will really love that. So will the concessionaires who sell food and souvenirs. So will the hospitality people who cater to the spectators, and the restaurateurs, and the gas station owners, and all the other supporting industries who do really well on airshow weekends. So will the cops and sheriff’s officers and so on, who count on these shows as an overtime opportunity. Not only that, but you kill the main revenue stream for the museums and foundations that maintain these planes. Before long they’ll all have to bang up shop and sell these aircraft to, presumably, the big places like the Smithsonian, who might not take them, because they have limited display and storage space. If they can’t, these historic aircraft, some of which there aren’t that many of to begin with, end up in the boneyard to rust away, and there go a bunch more links to history.

Is elimination of the risk worth losing all that?

17 thoughts on “Comment Of The Day: “Open Forum, And An Idea….,” B-17 Crash Thread

  1. Thanks, Jack, and here’s hoping you will join a bunch of us on the Mall next May 8, as 106 WW2 aircraft pass over Washington on the 75th anniversary of V-E Day, one of the last tributes living members of the Greatest Generation will see.

  2. That particular thread was one of my favorites and Steve’s comment is the kind of commentary I look forward to. He and several others take time to build their cases with checkable facts and apply logic rather than relying on talking points and emotion.

    This issue was timely because a good friend was on a B25 flight one week earlier. After the accident we discussed the potential risks.

    Congrats Steve

  3. Several of my friends fly vintage aircraft, ranging from T-6s to F-86s. They are thoughtful and careful people, but at least one of them has had a catastrophic engine failure on takeoff that almost resulted in tragedy, and they all understand and accept that an in-flight emergency is never more than a throttle movement away. They readily fly the aircraft anyway, because they love flying and because they understand that they are keeping alive a heritage that goes to the very heart of our culture, in terms of adventure, risk, inventiveness, and industry. Most people who watch these planes understand this at some level–my friends talk about the large numbers of people who talk to them at every show, and who thank them for keeping alive these reminders of what it took to go up in the sky when flying was not so safe, and the industry was new. The risk for them and the people who come to watch them, does not outweigh those rewards. Not yet, anyway.

    • Exactly right. I’ve spoken to a bunch of these pilots, even to the MAA folks soon after the crash that claimed on of their own, and they said they still wouldn’t give it up no matter what. They are bringing history, our history, to life in a way a book or even a movie can’t.

  4. I have never flown a B-17 but I do hold a commercial pilots licence and am rated for multi-engine aircraft.

    From what I know of multi-engine aircraft in general, the B-17 should be perfectly capable of safe flight with only three engines and may even be capable of maintaining controllable flight with two engines. However, this presumes that the flight crew are properly trained and current in the failed engine protocol of flying the specific machine. When an emergency occurs, the flight crew must respond immediately in the correct way or else risk a disaster. So, one engine-out on the B-17 most likely is not the main problem.

    Another observation I would offer is that the age of the aircraft is not necessarily as problematic as one might assume. I have flown in or piloted myself a number of older aircraft. The oldest I recall flying in was certified in 1928. The oldest I have piloted myself was certified in 1939. Both aircraft were certified for hire and therefore had to meet certain FAA standards for commercial hire. Both aircraft were rebuilt multiple times including the replacement of critical parts of the air frames and power plants. Old parts can and are replicated by newly manufactured parts and are FAA certified to be as good or better than the originals. There is no reason that an old airplane can not keep flying safely indefinitely assuming that it is properly inspected and maintained.

    A third observation, older aircraft models, in comparison to modern aircraft models, can be a handful. A big WWII bomber like this will have some quirky flight characteristics to deal with. Training and hours of experience in the specific machine is critical to safe operation. The pilot of this machine was apparently very experienced in the B-17 but also elderly and may have been a bit past his prime.

    Ultimately, we should wait until the NTSB investigation is finished. But, no, vintage aircraft should not be grounded just because they are old. And any pilot will tell you the same. S##T happens… manage it! And in most cases, they do.

    • Indeed, age alone is no reason to stop flying a properly-maintained and inspected aircraft. Delta’s fleet of MD-80’s have an average age that’s approaching 30 years. Yes, that’s quite a bit younger than these old warbirds, but I’ll bet those MD-80’s have a heck of a lot more flight time on them. In terms of service life, they’re probably quite a bit “older” than any B-17 being flown at airshows today, but nobody thinks twice about hopping on board one and taking a trip to Seattle.

      • Consider the age of our still front line and actively deployed B-52’s! If they are maintained properly, they can fly forever. Cost eventually reaches a tipping point where less expensive equipment will do the job just as good or better.

  5. I grew up beneath the glide path for one of the runways at Miami International Airport and saw every plane from DC-3s through 747s up close and personal as a kid. Very often with one or more propeller feathered for some reason. The first plane I few in was a DC-6 flight one afternoon and early evening from Miami to Savannah, Georgia. Our house in Phoenix is directly beneath the flight path from Falcon Field to Central Avenue and the Memorial Day flyovers and on to Luke AFB for airshows. No one loves the sound of huge radial engines right over head more than I or my son in law do. B-17s, B-25, Texans, bi-plane trainers. You name it, they’re all in the air regularly in Phoenix. They’re loud enough I can hear them coming soon enough to make it outside to see them. My very favorite client was a non-commissioned B-17 pilot in WWII. Great, great guy. A retired dentist. When he got my bill in the mail, he’d drive down to my office to pay it the same day. My favorite high school English teacher’s husband flew The Hump and retired as a check pilot for Pan American rather than transition to the 747. A teacher at my high school was a ball turret gunner whose injuries confined him to a wheel chair. Those kids who flew in B-17s in the daylight over Europe were heroes beyond imagining. Twenty five missions? Are you kidding me? As a sitting duck for German fighters in planes that were fortresses only in the imagination of the Boeing engineers who dreamed them (and the name) up. The sacrifices these people made and the manufacturing might they flew in should always be revered.

    Maybe there’s a middle ground. No more paying passengers. Pilots and crewmen okay. But no passengers, regardless of how long and bullet proof the release they sign is.

    • Unfortunately, if you did that it would kill the revenue stream and the effect would be the same. I think we need to trust people to decide which risks they want to take.

      • I think it would be more ethical for the foundations keeping the planes flying to do so with donations rather than (in my opinion at least) largely unwitting potential casualties paying the freight. I think there’s enough tappable money out there, Steve.

    • Great comments, Other Bill and Steve-O.

      I am just fascinate that huge, slow moving metal monstrosities can get off the ground and stay off the ground. They seem to violate the laws of physics and nature.

      My uncle was a medivac helicopter in Vietnam. He had stories to tell. He also had a pilot’s license. He flew small aircraft. Periodically, he would buzz over our home, land a local private airport, and we would pile in his plane to have some fun. Sadly, he died flying an ultralight aircraft – he got caught in a down draft and couldn’t pull himself out of it. He was a large fellow and had no business flying such a small aircraft. He left a wife and 3 minor children.


  6. so bungy jumping, tandem parachute, helicopter tours? Darrow quote..

    “In order to have enough freedom, it is necessary to have too much.”

  7. Military aircraft designed in the late 30s and manufactured in the 40s are inherently less safe than civilian aircraft of the same era. Like Formula 1 racers are inherently less safe than mass produced family cars.

    In order to get adequate performance, be it bombload, speed, armament or maneuverability, the envelope had to be pushed. A safer aircraft which didn’t push the boundaries would get shot down, or require more missions risking flak and the inherent dangers of more sorties under wartime conditions. This would lead to possibly greater crew casualties, and worse, from the military viewpoint, inability to accomplish the mission.

    These were cutting edge, even bleeding edge, highly complex and sophisticated machines, where training accidents caused many casualties.

    The B-17G of 1943 was a quite different beast from the YB-17 of 1936, with many improvements, but still very much a high performance machine with little room for safety features other than the bare minimum.

    What this means is that flying warbirds of this era, or earlier, is inherently far more hazardous than old commercial aircraft. Aircraft of the early Cold War may be even more dangerous, as technology was accelerating at a wartime rate.

    It would be tragic if such old warbirds were grounded. However, replicas with stronger, lighter, and above all more reliable components and instrumentation could take over much of the flying role in museums and airshows. Rebuilds of original aircraft would only fly on special occasions and aniversaries.

    This has been the technique used successfully with WWI vintage machines, even such lethal (to the pilot) ones as the Sopwith Camel.

    • I think it’s a much simpler proposition to build a modern replica of a wooden-and-fabric single-engine biplane than to do the same for a complex steel-and-aluminum four-engine bomber like the B-17. There are hobbyists and experimental aircraft enthusiasts who could knock up a pretty good flying replica of a Sopwith Camel or SPAD S.XIII in their backyard workshops. A B-17 is a completely different animal, and I doubt it would be financially feasible to build a replica with modern technology (and go through the certification process to get FAA approval to fly it) just to fly at airshows.

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