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Airman on flight credited with helping those on B-17 escape

Hartford — An airman with the Connecticut National Guard who was aboard a B-17 bomber that crashed at an airport helped other passengers escape the flames by using his fire-resistant gloves to open a hatch, officials said Thursday. 

Seven people died when the plane with 13 people on board crashed, including an insurance analyst and a former police officer with an affinity for World War II history.

The Guardsman opened the hatch to get survivors off the plane despite having a broken arm and collarbone, The Hartford Courant reported. 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, but the New York Post identified him as Chief Master Sgt. James Traficante, 54.

"The Connecticut National Guard is thankful that our airman on board the aircraft is safe," said Maj. Gen. Francis Evon, adjutant general of the Connecticut National Guard. "Our thoughts and prayers are with all those affected by this tragic accident."

The two pilots were among those killed in the fiery wreck, officials said Thursday. The pilot was Ernest McCauley, 75, of Long Beach, Calif., and the co-pilot was Michael Foster, 71, of Jacksonville, Fla., according to the Connecticut Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection. The flight engineer Mitchell Melton, 34, of Dalhart, Texas, survived with injuries.

The plane crashed and burned after experiencing mechanical trouble on takeoff Wednesday morning from Bradley International Airport. Some of the survivors were critically injured.

A day after the fiery crash, stories were beginning to emerge about the witnesses and victims, The Hartford Courant reported. There was the pilot, who calmly asked the air traffic controller for clearance for an emergency landing “when you get a chance.” There was the worker in a de-icing building who dragged passengers out of the burning plane.

Among those killed was Gary Mazzone, 60, of East Windsor, 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, said in a Facebook post that her husband was among those killed. He had posted a photo from inside the plane just before takeoff.

“Words cannot express how devastated I am. Rob was the best person I’ve ever known. ... I will miss him beyond words can ever express. He loved his children more than anyone could know and the new grandson was the apple of his eye,” Debra Riddell wrote.

She told the Associated Press that she was at the airport on Wednesday to film her 59-year-old husband take a "bucket list" trip aboard the World War II-era bomber. She told reporters Thursday that her husband texted her shortly into the trip that they were coming back, blaming "turbulence."

But as the plane came in low and fell behind a hangar, Debra Riddell says she was certain it was going to crash. She then recalls hearing a "really, really loud sound" followed by a huge fire ball and billowing black smoke.

She said it all "just didn't seem real."

The other passengers killed in the flight were James Roberts, 48, of Ludlow, Mass.; David Broderick, 56, of West Springfield, Mass.; and Robert Rubner, 64, of Tolland, Conn.

State police on Thursday said the seven people injured in the crash were: passenger Andy Barrett, 36, of South Hadley, Mass.; passenger Linda Schmidt, 62, of Suffield; passenger Tom Schmidt, 62, of Suffield; passenger Joseph "JT" Huber, 48, of Simsbury; passenger Traficante of Simsbury; flight engineer Mitchell Melton, 34, of Dalehart, Texas; and airport worker Andrew Sullivan, 28, of Enfield, who was on the ground near the accident.

Two of the survivors are members of the Simsbury Volunteer Fire Department, the department posted on Facebook on Wednesday. "At this time both members are being treated at the hospital," the department said. "We ask that you keep the families in your thoughts."

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.

The retired, civilian-registered plane was associated with the Collings Foundation, an educational group that brought its Wings of Freedom vintage aircraft display to the airport this week, officials said. It also was among several historical aircraft that the foundation brought to the Groton-New London Airport last month.

The vintage bomber — also known as a Flying Fortress, one of the most celebrated Allied planes of World War II — was used to take history buffs and aircraft enthusiasts on short flights, during which they could get up and walk around the loud and windy interior.

Safety board investigating

The National Transportation Safety Board sent a team to investigate. Members said Thursday they are trying to determine if the plane had engine troubles prior to takeoff.

NTSB member Jennifer Homendy said concerns about the B-17 bomber’s engines stemmed from interviews with survivors of the crash, the Hartford Courant has reported. Also, investigators are looking into the performance and fitness of the pilots. Such an examination is conducted in most federal crash investigations.

At a news conference Thursday afternoon, Homendy said McCauley, 75, had 7,300 hours of flight time on the B-17, which may have made him the most experienced B-17 pilot in the nation. He’d been flying for Wings of Freedom for 20 years, Homendy said, and co-pilot Foster, 71, had been a volunteer pilot for the Collings Foundation for five years.

Homendy said that the 75-year-old plane's last "major inspection" was in January. "That inspection is called a continuous airworthiness inspection. From there, there are requirements to have progressive inspections," she said. "We do not know the quality of those inspections, we do not know if any issues were identified. We will be looking at that as part of the investigation."

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. She said investigators have begun securing evidence, including the engine in which the pilot had reported a problem, "for further examination."

Authorities sifted methodically through wreckage at the airport Thursday morning. A team of NTSB investigators were on the runway and surrounding area on the southern end of the airport, reviewing impact marks that the massive plane made in the ground and examining the remains of the aircraft.

Homendy said that the NTSB has requested training records for the pilots and other crew members, as well as air traffic transcripts from the Federal Aviation Administration and flight records for the plane. The board has also received a number of videos and photos from the public.

The Collings Foundation said it was cooperating with investigators.

It could be up to 10 days before the NTSB, charged with investigating serious transportation accidents, files a report on their investigation and another 12 to 18 months before they make any determinations on the cause of the crash.

“Our mission is to determine what happened, why it happened and to prevent it from happening again,” Homendy said.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., was quick to call for an investigation into the plane. “I think there is a real need for scrutiny and oversight here. ... It’s a vintage airplane and it needs to be properly maintained. If there were defects and improper maintenance it is a very strong red flashing light for others flying these planes,” he said.

Homendy said that the plane hit the ground about 1,000 feet short of Bradley’s runway 6. She said the plane crashed at 9:53 a.m. — just minutes after take-off. The aircraft’s pilots radioed in a problem, saying the plane was not gaining altitude and that there was trouble with its number four engine.

The plane then hit multiple stanchions, veered right over a grassy area and the taxiway, and then slammed into the airport’s de-icing facility before bursting into flames. It sent dark columns of smoke into the air that could be seen for miles.

The intense fire consumed much of the fuel-laden plane; a piece of a wing and the tail were all that was left intact.

The historic plane had twice been involved in accidents. In a 1986 crash in Pennsylvania investigated by the NTSB, the pilot reported trying to land the bomber in a heavy crosswind, and unable to stop, went off the runway, down a ravine and was damaged, records show. A 1995 accident, not investigated by authorities, was reported in a World War II veterans newsletter that said the plane had to land on one wheel when one of its landing gear would not lock into place. During the emergency landing in Iowa, its wing dragged for 700 feet and was damaged.

Historical aircraft face special regulations

Maintaining these planes requires specific plans under federal regulations.

Simsbury Airport Manager Bradford Griswold said there are a variety of regulations surrounding the maintenance and inspection of noncommercial aircraft. Private airplanes are required to have yearly inspections by an FAA-certified airframe and power plant mechanic, he said.

The annual inspections are “incredibly” intensive, Griswold said, and pilots must also comply with any airworthiness directives, which may require more frequent inspections for particular aircraft or repair or replacement of specific parts.

But the process is more complicated with historical aircraft, Griswold said.

Historical airplanes are given individual, FAA-approved plans, he said. Those plans would cover pilot training and maintenance, as well as any other needs specific to the airplane.

“Usually those plans are tailored to that particular aircraft, and approved by the FAA,” Griswold said. “They’re more custom to the situation, because they don’t fit the boilerplate.”

Griswold said the process of developing an individual aircraft plan is meticulous. The FAA “has developed an exceptionally safe and reliable aircraft system in the United States,” he said. “They’re not ones to generally let things slide. They’ll make sure you get your ducks in a row.”

An FAA official said that historic planes such as the B-17 are eligible to operate “living history” flights. This category comes with exemptions, the official said, allowing operators to carry passengers in historical aircraft that have “a limited or experimental airworthiness certificate.”

“Exemptions are only granted when an applicant has demonstrated a public need, and demonstrates that an equivalent level of safety can be achieved,” Bergen said.

Associated Press writer Jennifer McDermott in Providence, and Hartford Courant writers Nicholas Rondinone, Emily Brindley and Dave Altimari in Hartford, contributed to this report.

Air traffic control audio leading up to the B-17 crash


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