Ernest “Mac” McCauley grew up near an airport in California and begged pilots for rides. On Wednesday, McCauley’s dream job ended as the B-17 Flying Fortress he flew for more than 20 years crashed during an emergency landing at a Connecticut airport. The crash killed him, the co-pilot and five others.
McCauley, 75, of Long Beach, California, had more than 7,000 hours flying the “Nine-o-Nine” B-17, which toured for the Collings Foundation. The Wings of Freedom Tour made several visits to Spokane. The last tour stop occurred July 1 at Spokane International Airport.
In a reluctant interview he allowed that day as he focused on an oil change in one of the aircraft’s massive radial engines, McCauley talked about what it was like to fly the iconic bomber that led the U.S. bombing campaign in Europe during World War II.
“I fly this thing every single day,” McCauley said with a smile. “This is such a great airplane. 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 crash on Wednesday also killed co-pilot Michael Foster, 71, of Jacksonville, Florida, and five passengers, according to the Connecticut Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection.
Air traffic control recordings captured McCauley calling the tower at Bradley International Airport, located just north of Hartford, Conn., asking to return to the airport after he reported a problem with the No. 4. engine. McCauley’s voice remained calm and showed no panic.
However, as the plane approached runway 6, the B-17 lost control and ran off the runway and crashed into a building that housed equipment used for deicing aircraft and the wreckage caught fire.
According to the Associated Press, the killed passengers included Gary Mazzone, 60, of East Windsor, Connecticut, who was a history and military buff, according to his son, Daniel Mazzone. He didn’t know of his father’s plans to ride the B-17, he said, but knew why he would be interested.
“I think he just wanted to see what it was like to be in the back of a B-17,“ Daniel Mazzone said. “He loved World War II. He loved people who served this country in any capacity.”
Mazzone, a father of three children and two stepdaughters, retired in January as a prosecutor’s office inspector and previously was a Vernon police officer for 22 years.
“We’re all very sad … and we’re very sad for his family,“ Chief State’s Attorney Kevin Kane said. “He was a good investigator. He was a good inspector. And he was a very good and helpful colleague.”
The wife of Robert Riddell, an insurance company analyst from East Granby, Connecticut, said she was devastated by the loss of her husband. Robert Riddell had posted a photo from inside the plane just before takeoff.
Debra Riddell was at the airport herself and watched with dread as the plane struggled.
“As soon as it fell behind the hanger, I just had this really bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. I just sensed that that plane was going to go down. I knew it, was certain of it,“ she said.
The other passengers killed in the flight were James Roberts, 48, of Ludlow, Massachusetts; David Broderick, 56, of West Springfield, Massachusetts; and Robert Rubner, 64, of Tolland, Connecticut.
The flight engineer Mitchell Melton, 34, of Dalhart, Texas, survived with injuries. Five other passengers on the plane were injured along with Andrew Sullivan, 28, an airport employee who was on the ground near the site of the accident.
Bridgeport Hospital officials said that one survivor who arrived in serious condition was upgraded Thursday to fair condition, and that two others there were still in fair condition. All three suffered burns and broken bones.
One patient injured in the crash remained at Hartford Hospital, officials said.
An airman with the Connecticut National Guard who was aboard the B-17 bomber helped other passengers escape the flames by using his fire-resistant gloves to open a hatch, officials said Thursday.
The airman has training in handling emergencies on aircraft and had brought his military-issued gloves on the flight, according to the Guard. The airman was treated at a hospital and has been recovering at home. His name was not released.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with all those affected by this tragic accident,” said Maj. Gen. Francis Evon, adjutant general of the Connecticut National Guard.
The National Transportation Safety Board sent a team to investigate.
Investigators have begun securing evidence, including the engine in which the pilot had reported a problem, NTSB member Jennifer Homendy said at a news conference.
As part of the investigation, she said, they also will look into witness reports that work was being done on one or two of the engines prior to takeoff. The plane had last been through a major inspection in January 2019, she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.