WINDSOR LOCKS, Conn. — Seven people were killed Wednesday and six others were injured when a World War II-era bomber crashed during an emergency landing at Bradley International Airport, officials said.
Three crew members and 10 passengers were aboard the vintage B-17 plane when it took off around 9:45 a.m. About five minutes into the flight, a pilot called the tower to report “some type of problem” with the aircraft, and officials saw that it was not gaining altitude, said Kevin Dillon, executive director of the Connecticut Airport Authority.
The civilian plane circled around the airport to return to the runway but lost control on touchdown, bursting into flames and propelling a massive plume of black smoke, officials said.
Jennifer Homendy of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is leading the crash investigation, said the plane struck some stanchions, then veered to the right, crossing a grassy area and a taxiway before crashing into a maintenance building.
“Our mission is to determine what happened, why it happened, and to prevent it from happening again,” she said.
The plane, built in 1945, was operated by the Collings Foundation, a Stow educational group that offers rides to the public as part of a “Wings of Freedom Tour” that showcases vintage planes.
The victims were not identified Wednesday evening.
“Right now, my heart really goes out to the families who are waiting,” said Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont. “And we are going to give them the best information we can as soon as we can in an honest way.”
The victims were “husbands and wives and brothers and sisters and children, and all members of our Connecticut family,” he said.
Injuries ranged from minor to critical, Connecticut Public Safety Commissioner James Rovella said at an evening press conference. He did not identify the victims, saying authorities had not been able to contact three of the families.
An airport worker in the maintenance building was injured and one firefighter was treated for minor injuries, Rovella said.
“Our thoughts and prayers are with those who were on that flight and we will be forever grateful to the heroic efforts of the first responders at Bradley,” Hunter Chaney, a spokesman for the Collings Foundation, said in a statement. “The Collings Foundation flight team is fully cooperating with officials to determine the cause of the crash of the B-17 Flying Fortress and will comment further when details become known.”
Audio between an air traffic controller and a pilot detail the moment the plane asked to return to the airport.
“What’s the reason for coming back?” an air traffic controller asks.
Someone on the plane responded, “Number four engine, we’d like to return [inaudible].”
The air traffic controller tells the plane it could proceed “onto the downwind for runway 6” before asking, “And you said you need an immediate landing?”
The response came back: “When you get a chance, yeah.”
The air traffic controller mentions the airport has “jet traffic coming in” and asks whether the plane needs “to be on the ground right now.”
Shortly after that question, the air traffic controller can be heard telling other planes that the airport has been closed for “an aircraft incident.”
Brian Hamer of Norton, Mass., said he was less than a mile away when he saw a B-17, “which you don’t normally see,” fly directly overhead, apparently trying to gain altitude but not succeeding.
One of the engines began to sputter, and smoke came out of the back, Hamer said. The plane made a wide turn and headed back toward the airport, he said.
“Then we heard all the rumbling and the thunder, and all the smoke comes up, and we kind of figured it wasn’t good,” Hamer said.
Antonio Arreguin said he had parked at a construction site near the airport for breakfast when he heard an explosion. He said he did not see the plane but could feel the heat from the fire from about 250 yards away.
“In front of me, I see this big ball of orange fire, and I knew something happened,” he said. “The ball of fire was very big.”
A smaller explosion followed about a minute after the first blast, he said. He saw emergency crews scrambling within seconds. The airport was immediately closed. Authorities said the crash caused 39 flight cancellations and 19 delays.
Federal investigations of this kind take between a year and 18 months, Homendy said. Investigators will consider fueling information and how many hours the plane has been flown, she said.
Only a handful of the roaring four-engine Boeing B-17s are still airworthy. They were critical in breaking Nazi Germany’s industrial war machine during World War II.
The Collings Foundation said the same plane also crashed in an August 1987 air show near Pittsburgh, injuring several people. The bomber overshot a runway while attempting to land and plunged down a hillside as spectators waited for the show’s finale.
The foundation said the plane was hit by a severe crosswind after it touched down and that the right wing lifted into the air, causing it to overshoot the runway.
The plane was damaged but restored. Because it was built in 1945, the plane was too late for combat in World War II, according to the foundation. It served in a rescue squadron and a military air transport service before being subjected to the effects of three nuclear explosions during testing, the foundation said.
After a 13-year “cooling off” period, the plane was sold as scrap and eventually was restored.
The foundation bought it in 1986.