The vintage B-17 Flying Fortress that visited Spokane in July as part of the Wings of Freedom Tour crashed Wednesday during an emergency landing at an airport outside Hartford, Connecticut, killing seven of the 13 people on board and injuring one person in a maintenance building that was hit by the aircraft.
The B-17 “Nine-o-Nine,” owned by the Collings Foundation, had taken off with a crew of three and 10 passengers from Bradley International Airport when the pilot, who has not yet been identified, reported an emergency five minutes after takeoff.
At least seven people died and others reportedly suffered serious injuries, according to a state official quoted by the Associated Press.
“Right now my heart really goes out to the families who are waiting,” Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont told the Associated Press. “And we are going to give them the best information we can as soon as we can in an honest way.“
The plane, which is one of the few remaining airworthy B-17s left in the world, was a few minutes into the flight when pilots said it was not gaining altitude, officials said.
It lost control while trying to land, slid off the runway and struck a maintenance building used to store the airport’s de-icing equipment.
News images from the scene show a plume of black smoke rising from the airport at about 10:40 a.m. Eastern time.
“There were fatalities,” James C. Rovella, the commissioner of the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, told NBC News. “Victims are very difficult to identify, we don’t want to make a mistake.”
Following the crash, officials closed the airport, which is New England’s second busiest.
Brian Hamer, of Norton, Massachusetts, told the Associated Press that he was less than a mile away when he saw a B-17, “which you don’t normally see,” fly directly overhead, apparently trying to gain altitude but not succeeding.
One of the engines began to sputter, and smoke came out the back, Hamer said. The plane made a wide turn and headed back toward the airport, he said.
“Then we heard all the rumbling and the thunder, and all the smoke comes up and we kind of figured it wasn’t good,“ Hamer said.
When the plane visited Spokane International Airport in July, it was piloted by 74-year-old Mac McCauley, who had flown the plane for 21 years. None of the people on board during the crash have been identified.
“This is such a great airplane,” McCauley said as he looked up with oily hands in July. “She doesn’t like crosswinds too much. When the weather is really rough, it’s like wrestling a gorilla. For the most part, it’s a pleasure to fly.”
The B-17 was painted to honor the “Nine O Nine,” which flew 140 missions and never had a mechanical abort or came home with an injured crew member.
“It was considered the luckiest plane in the 8th Air Force,” McCauley said.
The plane had 609 patches, which covered holes from bullets or anti-aircraft shrapnel, when it was flown home to be cut into scrap, he said. McCauley explained the plane now painted to honor the “Nine O Nine” actually flew sea rescue missions out of Panama with a boat affixed to its bottom.
“It costs about $250,000 a year to keep it in the air,” he said. “That’s if nothing dramatic breaks.”
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The B-17 , which led the U.S. bombing campaign against Germany, has radial engines that each take 37 1/2 gallons of oil. McCauley explained that the massive engines burn about four gallons of oil an hour.
McCauley said one of the honors of his life was when he flew with Basil Hackleman, who piloted the actual “Nine O Nine” in several of its missions over Germany.
McCauley grew up near an airport in California and used to beg for rides in airplanes. Over the years, thousands of people lined up to get rides from McCauley.
“Over the years, I got to meet the guys from the Greatest Generation who flew it,” he said. “The first time I cried in 20 years was when (Hackleman) passed away. He was one of the greatest guys you ever met.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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