Aging 'war birds' are a legacy at risk

Wings of Freedom, a traveling entourage of World War II military aircraft, flew into Groton-New London Airport in September as it has almost every year, including 2017. That year, North Stonington resident Jack Gosselin took a ride on the B-17G Flying Fortress "Nine-Oh-Nine" and told The Day it was one of the top 10 experiences of his life.

This year, commercial pilot Gloria Bouillon rode in the same plane and used similar words of awe to describe the flight and the aircraft.

The Collings Foundation, operators of the Wings of Freedom Tour, has clearly been fulfilling its mission to "honor the sacrifices made by our veterans that allow us to enjoy our freedom; and to educate the visitors, especially younger Americans, about our national history and heritage," by displaying and offering flights on its vintage aircraft. But with the fiery crash of the Nine-Oh-Nine at Bradley Airport Oct. 2, the plane is lost as surely as those shot down over Nazi Germany. Seven died and seven other people, including one on the ground, suffered serious burns and other injuries.

The National Transportation Safety Board's investigation into the crash will focus on what caused the malfunction leading the pilot to request permission to land after just a few minutes in the air. The inquiry should determine the ultimate cause of the seven deaths, but it will also be a post-mortem for the plane.

In the aftermath of the crash, experts have been debating whether careful maintenance and inspections are enough to make up for the aging of materials and systems. The Nine-Oh-Nine came off the assembly line in 1945. It is one of 10 Collings Foundation aircraft that have been operating under a "living history flight experience" exemption from some of the normal standards for operating and piloting commercial aircraft. The Federal Aviation Administration has been granting such exemptions for two decades and had certified this B-17 Flying Fortress through November 2022.

Senator Richard Blumenthal reacted to the crash with a request to the FAA for information on the requirements it put on the Collings Foundation for pilot training, response to emergency situations and reporting of mechanical problems, among other concerns. The NTSB will review whether the foundation met the requirements.

Whatever the findings, this crash destroyed a vintage aircraft, raising the inevitable question: Is it wise to fly the few remaining planes at the risk of losing them altogether and, in the process, endangering lives? Looking at a stationary plane on the ground, even from inside, can't compare to the thrill people have reported from a half-hour flight that recalls the heroics of the Second World War. And yet, according to the Associated Press, since 1982 the NTSB has investigated 21 accidents involving World War II-era bombers. The time will come when the best way to preserve their legacy is to end their flying days. Has that day arrived?

In Navy communities such as this one, the legacy of submarines and other warships is preserved by allowing people to visit decommissioned ships in their berths in port. No one seriously argues that civilians should be able to go to sea on an old diesel-fired submarine and experience a deep dive. The comparison is imperfect but it addresses the same issues of sharing the legacy without risking lives. 

The NTSB investigation and the FAA responses to Senator Blumenthal's questions will help frame the discussion. We are glad to see the rules re-examined as a starting point. Meanwhile, the Collings Foundation has suspended its flight experience program through the end of 2019.

Next year, however, is a big one for the war birds and those who preserve and operate them. On May 8, 2020, the world will observe the 75th anniversary of V-E Day, the day when Allied forces received the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. The bombers and fighter planes brought the war in Europe to its close.

That could be a fitting time to take the Wings of Freedom tour to the skies once more, with passengers if the FAA deems it safe, or without if not. And then permanently preserve and exhibit the remaining war birds. Theirs is a legacy Americans must not lose.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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