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I like so many was shocked and saddened to hear of the crash of Nine-O-Nine. The wreckage has to make you wonder how any of the six survivors got out alive. Some were aided by a Connecticut Air National Guardsman that was on the flight. Salute!!

We all I am sure are wondering why this happened. The pilot was also an airline pilot. So the pilot was hardly an amateur airman. Witnesses stated the plane’s troubles started at or just after rotation for takeoff. One stated that at that point he saw the number 3 engine sputter, emit smoke and some fire. Another stated that as it was approaching the runway, he saw three engines malfunctioning. If true, the B-17 was coming down they only question was where.

I am leaning to two possibilities that if I was part of the NTSB investigation team would be where I would start. Having multiple failures of the time tested Wright R-1820 1,200 horsepower engines would be extraordinarily rare. There would have to be something common to cause this. I can think of only two things that could do that, fuel and oil.

The pilot’s manual I have states that the fuel should be 100 octane fuel. That would be a high leaded gasoline. Today all that is available is a 100 octane low lead fuel. This will give a slightly reduced performance. I suspect that the turbochargers are not connected. This simplifies maintenance and is not needed as these planes are not used above 10,000 feet. So that extra power is not available for an emergency.

A quick search of common aviation gasoline available today reveals two grades, Blue: AvGas 100LL (100/130 Octane) (This was formulated as a replacement for AvGas 100, with half the lead - hence 100LL - Low Lead) and Red: AvGas 80 (80/87 Octane). What would be the result if the B-17 was incorrectly refueled with Red AvGas? The manual does indicate the Wright radials will work with reduced performance with 91 octanes. AvGas 80 would not be good for the engines. This could be a possibility. I am sure the NTSB will check for this.

While two of the engines were barely running and one running normally, tends to rule out this B-17 having been refueled with jet fuel. That would have shut down these engines very quickly. That is not what witnesses have reported. This has happened before.

Another possibility would be cold weather oil dilution. This is done by putting gasoline into the oil just before shutting down the engine. This thins the oil so the engine can be started in cold weather. In the cockpit is a toggle switch for each engine to do dilution.

While this is a possibility, I have to doubt that a well-trained cockpit crew following the various engine starting, taxiing, and pre-takeoff checklists would overlook these four switches. Granted, checklist items have been missed many times in the past resulting in tragedies. The Collings Foundation annually recertifies their aircrews. So this while not very likely still could be the cause.

One local TV reporter asked a very good question “Is there a black box on this airplane?” The interviewed person from the Collins Foundation told the report that no there wasn’t and that the technology between the plane and recorder is incompatible. I agree for a flight instrument recorder that is true. It would be extremely costly to retrofit any 70 plus year old warbird.

The cockpit voice recorder could be done. For planes that like this B-17 that routinely carry passengers could be useful. You would need to record radio transmissions, intercom use, and two separate cockpit voice recorders. The cockpit is an extremely noisy place once the engines are started. One channel would be raw sound. Another channel would be an electronically noise reduced to allow a better capture of pilot copilot vocal communications. If this had been installed, it could be a help to the NTSB. This would let the NTSB to hear the plane sounds and how the flight crew was handling this emergency. A “poor man’s” voice recorder would be to instruct the flight crew to switch to a hot mike when they radio the air traffic controllers declaring an inflight emergency. The controllers always record all radio communications. This would be the easiest solution. I am sure the NTSB would make great use of even the controller tapes with a hot mike in figuring out what happened.

We will have to wait for the NTSB report to learn was happened to Nine-O-Nine.

Sadly and predictably there are calls to ground all the remaining flyable warbirds. Someday that will happen. When these planes were built, no one dreamed that any of these planes would still be flying. It is by so much chance that these planes survived the scrapping frenzy after WWII. So much history was lost like the original Nine-O-Nine. History today to many is not anything important. I hope it will be a long time until these proud living history memorials is retired to a museum or worse crashed.

Also from time to time anti-war activists call for all these war birds to be scrapped. They glorify war and that is evil and thus must be destroyed. We need these planes both flying and sitting in museums to remind all of us of the high cost of freedom. A model can’t tell that story. Climbing in a war bird can just barely begin to communicate what our Airman went through 25,000 feet above Germany. We must remember this history for future generations.

The article below is from the book, “Final Cut” by Scott A. Thompson. This gives the history of the B-17 that crashed tragically in Connecticut on October 2nd this year.

B-17G 44-83757
Collings Foundation
Stow Massachusetts

Another Fortress with a divers and unusual history is 44-83575. Beginning active service as an air-sea rescue TB-17H, this Fortress went to serve as a static target for a nuclear test at the Nevada Test Site, later to be rebuilt by an air tanker operator who painstakingly restored the Fortress into a usable tanker. After the B-17 tankers were retired, a new civil owner 44-83757 to combat configuration and turned it into a premier flying example of the type. Unfortunately the summer of 1987 saw 44-83757 nearly destroyed in an airshow accident, but the airplane was rebuilt over a several year process and once again became a Phoenix rising from the ashes.

44-83757 rolled from the Long Beach production lines of Douglas on April 7, 1945, and accepted the same day by the Army Air Forces. It was flown to the Douglas modification center at Tulsa, Oklahoma arriving on April 9. It left Tulsa on May 6 bound for Cheyenne, Wyoming, and additional modifications, being deemed ready for service on May 18, 1945.

The aircraft was assigned to the 1152nd AAF Base Unit, an Air Rescue squadron at Natal Brazil. The assigned pilot, Lt. William H. Holmes, and his crew named their plane Mais ou Menous, a Portuguese expression which means “more or less.” The crew had a pin-up nose are applied along with the name. 44-83757 served as a B-17H with a Higgins lifeboat and search radar while based in Brazil. In early 1946, the crew and airplane were moved to the Ascension Islands and to Albrook Air Base in the Panama Canal Zone.

By April 1947, the aircraft was assigned to the Caribbean Air Command and the 6th Air Force, attached to the 1st Rescue Squadron at Borinquin Air Station in Puerto Rico. 44-83757 would remain with the 1st Rescue Squadron but would see various assignments to Ramey AFB, Puerto Rico, plus Albrook AFB and Howard AFB in the Panama Canal Zone. On July 1, 1948 it was redesignated as an AB-17G to conform with the modified designation system as established by the new USAF.

On June 14, 1951, it was reassigned to Kindley Field, Bermuda, continuing to serve as an SB-17G. However its fate took a turn when on February 9, 1952, it was reassigned to the Special Weapons Center at Kirtland AFB, New Mexico. It is probable the B-17 never actually was based at Kirtland, but now became part of the Air Force Special Weapons Command. Shortly afterwards it and another Kindley SB-17G, 44-83722, plus another five B-17s were flown to Yucca Flats near Mercury, Nevada, part of the Nevada Test Site. The Nevada Test Site was administered by the Atomic Energy Commission and beginning in 1951, became the domestic location for nuclear detonations. The B-17s were brought to the site to become targets and research instruments to test the effects of an atomic blast. They were parked at varying ranges from ground zero to determine changes in blast effects at different ranges.

44-83757 was used in the first series of test conducted in 1952 as part of Operation Snapper. The study was entitled Vulnerability of parked Aircraft to Atomic Bombs and sought to establish the survivability of different aircraft configurations and locations to nuclear weapons. 44-83575 was subjected to three nuclear detonations. In the first, the aircraft were parked approximately 10,000 feet from a one kiloton explosion. 44-84575 survived intact. In the second test, the aircraft were parked the same distance from a thirty-one kiloton device, and suffered damage that would have required more than 4,000 man hours to repair. For the last test, the aircraft was situated 8,000 feet from a nineteen kiloton explosion, and it was determined the aircraft would have require 5,274 man hours to repair the damage, that was considered uneconomical. Skin damage from the shock wave was the primary result, thought the aircraft also became intensely radioactive. After evaluating damage to the seven B-17s and the twenty-one other aircraft used as targets, the report concluded that the conventional landing gear configuration and the broad wing area made designs similar to the B017 most vulnerable to nuclear explosions.

At the completion of the program it and the other test vehicles were towed to a spot on the edge of the Yucca Lake to sit and radiate. They were largely forgotten, though as the material “cooled off” parts began to disappear to souvenir hunters. When it was determined that the B-17, as well as all the surrounding scrap, was safely decontaminated, it was offered for sale in a salvage bid in 1964.

44083575, as part of the 800 ton scrap bid (that also contained the remains of 44-83722) was sold to Valley Scrap Metal of Phoenix, Arizona, in April 1965. (The FAA paperwork on the aircraft indicated the sale date as May 14, 1965; the date discrepancy was probably the result of Aircraft Specialties trying to secure FAA permission for the impending ferry flight and the rush to complete paperwork.) The net cost to Valley Scrap was $269 for the Fortress.

Aircraft Specialties of Mesa, Arizona, then purchased the two airframes from Valley Scrap with the intent of flying 44-83575 off the lake. The other Fortress, 44-83722, had suffered too much damage to repair, but it was apparent to Aircraft Specialties, if to no one else, that 575 wasn’t that far from being flyable. They purchased the scrap, however, paying 1.5 cents per pound. Valley Scrap had agreed to have the material off the site within six weeks of the contract date, so the sales agreement with Aircraft Specialties contained the same stipulation.

First task that lay before Abe Sellards and Richard Packard, tow owner of Aircraft Specialties, was arranging permission for initial mechanical work to be performed right at the Test Site. Few people believed it was possible to make the aircraft airworthy in such a short time given its condition and the lack of many parts. Nonetheless, permission was secured and John King, chief of maintenance at Aircraft Specialties, arrived with a work crew and a truckload of parts.

King found the aircraft basically intact. However as noted before there was much skin damage from the atomic blast effect. The control surfaces were damaged and stripped of fabric. Most of the control cables had been removed and all the instruments in the cockpit were gone. Everything was covered or filled with desert sand. King and his crew, that varied between three and six men at any one time, disassembled and cleaned all the mechanical components. More than 4,000 feet of control cable was restrung though the fuselage and the gaping holes on the instrument panel were filled with instruments. Sheet metal fabricators worked next on the bomber, stripping off warped skin and custom fitting new aluminum panels in their place. Mechanics brought the engines back to life, and systems checks were run. The old Air Force serial was painted out, replace by new FAA registration on N93012.

In the later stages of the project John King dubbed the old bomber Lady Yucca, and the name was soon applied to the nose. (Also applied was a pin-up figure “liberated” from an appropriate magazine.) The aircraft, still wearing the remnants of its air-sea rescue MATS paint scheme but showing the evidence of much reskinning, was considered ready for its ferry flight to Falcon Field, in Mesa, Arizona, on May 14, 1965.

That morning, with Aircraft Specialties president Abe Sellards and john King at the controls, 44-83575 departed Yucca Flats on its first flight in fourteen years. Arriving at Falcon Field, N93012 still faced major rebuilding to put the aircraft into top mechanical condition for its new assignment as an air tanker.

That rebuilding effort finished the job started at Yucca Flats, but took nearly ten additional years. Much of that time the aircraft remained parked in outdoor storage, with additional parts removed for use in the rest of the B-17 fleet. Four zero-time engines eventually replaced the old engines that came with the plane. A great deal of additional skin repair was required and the electrical and other systems were overhauled. Any remaining non-essential military equipment was removed to save weight. Two retardant tanks plus the associated plumbing were installed in the bomb bay. N93012 as Tanker 999, joined the tanker fleet in 1977 and during the following years was widely used in the southwestern United States. It was variously based during fire season at Winslow, Arizona, as well as several California air tanker bases.

Tanker 99 would remain active with Aircraft Specialties and its successor, Globe Air, until 1985 when the principal owners decided to liquidate its assets and close the business. In the process of disposing the fleet, much of which was sold at an auction conducted in October 1985. N93012 was sold to aircraft collector Bob Collings of Stow Massachusetts. Collings had air tanker veteran Ed Boyles and restorer Tom Reilly ferry N93012 to Reilly’s Vintage Aircraft restoration facility located in Kissimmee, Florida. The B-17 went into the shops on April 1, 1987, and emerged a new airplane at the end of July. Reilly had worked his way through the old tanker giving it a general overhaul. The propellers were rebuilt, the fuel tanks and lines replaced, new glass was installed, and new tires and brakes went onto the axles. Reilly custom manufactured a new interior, and replaced the bulkheads, stripped from the airplane twenty years earlier. Military equipment was added as available, including the addition of a chin turret. N93012 was repainted as Nine-O-Nine, depicting a famous 91st Bomb Group Fortress.

The original Nine-O-Nine was B-17G 42-31909 and was particularly distinguished because it had completed 140 missions with the 91st Bomb Group between March 2, 1944 and April 25, 1945, without a crew fatality or injury. That record also included a 100 percent completion rate (no mission aborted) and eighteen missions to Berlin. By the end of the war, the Fortress was a patchwork of repairs, mismatched paint, and showed the hard use in the skies over Europe. It was returned to the U.S. and was scrapped at Kingman.

Further restoration efforts were planned for the replicated Nine-O-Nine, included the addition of the dorsal and ball turrets, but N93012 was ready for flying and it joined the airshow circuit in the summer of 1987. A setback occurred, however, on August 23, 1987. During and airshow at Beaver County Airport, 25 miles north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, N93012 was involved in a landing accident that resulted in substantial damage to the aircraft and twelve injuries to crewmembers on board. According to the National Transportation Board, the Fortress landed long on the 4,000 foot runway and could not stop before rolling off the end of the pavement and down a hundred foot embankment. The Fortress also rolled across two telephone poles at the bottom of the ravine. The resultant damage would have been considered irreparable twenty years earlier, but efforts began immediately to repair the aircraft. Three of the four engine nacelles were badly bent, and the landing gear mounting structure in the number two nacelle was all but destroyed. The lower wing surfaces and tail suffered severe damage, as did the lower part of the nose.

The B-17 was partially disassembled and hauled from the site. It went into a hangar at the airport and repairs were started. Through efforts of volunteers from the local area, under the direction of Scott Royce of the Confederate Air Force, the B-17 slowly come back together. The horizontal stabilizer was replaced. The wings were removed and disassembled. Desert sand from years past was found and removed. One wing panel was repaired by US Air, the airline, as it operates a maintenance base on the field. US Air also did some work on the landing gear assemblies. A new number three engine nacelle was obtained from Shoo Shoo Baby restoration effort in Delaware, and another nacelle was completely disassembled and rebuilt. All four engines were zero-timed and freshly overhauled props were added. Systems not overhauled the first time around have were completed and the bomb bay doors were made operable. Replica dorsal and ball turrets were also installed where needed.

At the completion of the work at Beaver County the airplane was ferried to Tom Reilly’s facility at Kissimmee, Florida. Additional work was performed there to complete the rebuilding of flight systems and, by 1992, the airplane had rejoined the airshow circuit. Through the 1990s, the airplane has toured regularly on a barnstorming-type schedule. The B-17, usually accompanied by the Collings Foundation B-24J (44-44052 N224J), flies into airports for a two day visit sponsored by a local group. Local flights are used as fundraisers to carry veterans and enthusiasts an a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Tours are offered of each of the airplanes while they are parked on the airport ramp. The airplanes remain an airborne memorial to the American aerial effort in WWII

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Comment by Karen Damvelt on October 4, 2019 at 2:53pm

Such a tragedy to happen. Hope it wasnt Pilot error. I have the feeling also that the wrong Fuel was used somehow.


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