At 9:45 a.m. on Oct. 2, the aircraft lifted off the runway at Bradley International Airport in Connecticut.
At 9:50, air-traffic controllers received a call from the pilot stating there was engine trouble, requesting permission to return to the airport for an emergency landing.
On the tarmac, a woman stood, eager to film her husband’s bucket-list flight aboard the B-17 named “Nine 0 Nine” for the last three numerals in its serial number. Maybe she could catch the plane’s nose art that pictured a comical Christopher Columbus straddling a bomb while thumbing his nose at the Nazis.
But something was very wrong. It’s too low, she thought.
Three minutes later, she watched as, from behind a building, a fireball rose into the air, followed by a billowing soot-black plume of smoke.
It was a flight that should have turned out so differently. Nine 0 Nine, a B-17 Flying Fortress built in 1944, was one of the warbirds on the Wings of Freedom Tour, a flying tribute to the crews who flew the planes, the workers who built them, the ground crews who maintained them, and the citizens who continue to enjoy the freedom that they helped preserve.
Each year, the Collings Foundation's Wings of Freedom Tour visits more than 110 airports across the nation. At each stop, visitors climb aboard and explore the vintage planes, and some lucky few pay $450 to take a once-in-a-lifetime flight aboard a WWII bomber.
This year was the 27th that the group stopped at the Livermore Airport, the longest-running stop on the tour and the only one that gets the same date every year – Memorial Day weekend.
Pleasanton resident Kevin Ryan not only helps organize the Livermore stop each year, but volunteers to fly journalists in his plane to a designated California airport so they can hitch a ride aboard one of the warbirds as they fly to their next destination.
As the news of the B-17 crash traveled through the aviation world, Ryan said he was heartbroken. “Mac the pilot has been flying the B-17 for 20-plus years, and has more than 7,000 hours flying it. It is a real tragedy,” he said.
Ernest McCauley, affectionately called Mac by all who knew him, was one of 13 people aboard the B-17 when it hit the runway and careened into a de-icing facility. Seven passengers were killed, including Mac and the husband of the woman who was filming from the runway.
The aircraft was destroyed by the ensuing fire. Only the tail and a portion of one wing remained. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) opened an investigation into the accident. It will likely take a year to complete the investigation.
The Collings Foundation is currently suspending its flight operations and the Wings of Freedom Tour for the remainder of 2019.
“Everyone at Collings is devastated,” Ryan said. “Right now, we can only hope there will be a tour next year.”