By now you have probably heard about the midair collision between a Bell P-63 Kingcobra and the B-17 Texas Raiders that took place the afternoon of November 12, 2022, during the Wings Over Dallas Airshow.
The event, a product of the Commemorative Air Force, was something so many people looked forward to—including me, as the week prior to the event I had written stories mentioning aircraft slated to be at the show, namely the P-51 Tuskegee Airmen and Texas Raiders. I was looking forward to watching the video of the event—and I did see lots of video—just not what I wanted to see.
I was home in Seattle when the news of the accident reached me, just moments after the accident, as it turned out. It is never easy to hear of a loss like this. I have seen accidents at airshows, but this one, with the video image of the Bell P-63 Kingcobra slicing into the Boeing B-17 just aft of the radio compartment, will be with me for a long time, as will the frantic cries of a child who just witnessed the accident, asking “Was that supposed to happen? Was that supposed to happen?”
No. No, it wasn’t.
Almost immediately, social media erupted in discussions about the wisdom of allowing such rare aircraft to fly because accidents happen. We saw this in 2011 when the B-17 Liberty Belle, 44-85734, experienced an inflight fire in Aurora, Illinois, which led to an unscheduled off-airport landing in an agricultural field. Because of the skill of the crew, there was no loss of life during the landing, and the fire was small enough that the crew had the time to unload the aircraft. There are those who were there that day who stated that the fire would have probably been extinguished quickly had the fire department been able to access Liberty Belle; however, the fire department determined the field was too soft due to recent rains to permit the trucks to get to the aircraft. They watched from the road as the airplane burned.
A week or so earlier, Liberty Belle was in Seattle at King County International Airport/Boeing Field (KBFI). I took a few of my learners to see the airplane on static display. How I wished I’d had the $1,000 to get us all aboard for a flight. When the crew members acting as docents found out we were pilots they let us into the coveted cockpit to take a closer look. Now, in 2022, I am happy to report that Liberty Belle is being rebuilt. It is a story I plan to keep following.
The Loss of Nine-O-Nine
The cry to ground the remaining airworthy B-17s reached a crescendo on October 2, 2019, when the Collings Foundation B-17G, 44-83575, Nine-O-Nine was destroyed in a landing accident at Bradley International Airport (KBDL), Windsor Locks, Connecticut. There were 13 people on board, seven of whom perished. According to the NTSB report, the aircraft experienced an uncommanded loss of engine power inflight. The crash occurred when the aircraft was unable to maintain altitude during the approach to landing and there was a loss of directional control following a loss of thrust on one side of the aircraft.
My familiarity with the crew and the airplane made the reading of the NTSB report especially painful. I had made several flights on that aircraft and I knew the pilot, 75-year-old Capt. Ernest “Mac” McCauley. The last time I saw Mac was when the tour was at Tacoma Narrows Airport (KTIW), and I brought two of my learners to see the aircraft. Mac greeted me and demanded to know when I was going to join the crew for the tour. He knew I had been supplied with the binders filled with aircraft information that was issued during the ground school. I explained I was never in a financial position to take the time off work.
Keep ‘Em Flying or Keep Them Grounded?
The motto of the Commemorative Air Force is “to educate, inspire, and honor,” and there are those who say this is best done by flying these magnificent machines—yet one of the arguments for the grounding of the B-17s is that they are too rare to risk losing. Of the 12,731 B-17s built, approximately 45 are left today, and most of them on static display, such as Memphis Belle at the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, and the Boeing Bee in Seattle at the Museum of Flight.
I have mixed feelings on the grounding of the aircraft. I understand that because they are so rare, keeping them on static display protects them in a sense more so than when they are flying —so that future generations will be able to see and learn about them. However, at the same time, I cannot shake the idea that airplanes are made to fly, and an aircraft on display is akin to a vinyl record on display—like a first edition Beatles LP that you can look at, but not listen too. FLYING Editor-in-Chief Julie Boatman advocates to keep them flying, saying “You can always build a non-flying restoration from a data plate. As long as we have airworthy ones, they should take to the sky.”
Because She Was My First
Loss of life and emotional trauma notwithstanding, I think part of the reason this accident hurts so much is because Texas Raiders B-17G-95-DL, 44-83872, was the first B-17 I ever got close to. It was the early 1990s, and I was a general assignment reporter for a television station in Medford, Oregon. I was on-call 24/7. I had a station-issued car and equipment that went everywhere with me. I was also a student pilot, and for reasons I am still not quite clear on, my employers didn’t like the fact that I was learning to fly. One boss told me if I was in the air, they wouldn’t be able to reach me if a story broke. Another boss was afraid of airplanes, and they were sure I was going to crash. Despite this, I flew every chance I could.
I flew out of Grants Pass Airport (3S8) in a rented Cessna 150. It was an August afternoon as I was practicing steep turns in the practice area when I saw the green four engine bomber—Texas Raiders—approaching from the East. It was fire season, and I knew that some World War II aircraft had been configured as water bombers. Was that one of them? Then the aircraft turned and I realized this airplane was wearing World War II markings.
“That looks like a World War II B-17,” I thought as I turned to head back to the nontowered airport I called home. I muttered this observation at least three more times as I followed the aircraft into the pattern. I landed, parked, and rushed over to the airplane now taking up the entire transient area on the ramp in front of the FBO. I stood under the nose, looking up at the impressive machine. “It IS a B-17!” I said to myself as three men wearing tan flight suits were having a very animated conversation with the airport manager. I learned they had been scheduled to be parked at Medford Airport (KMFR) but there was some sort of issue—they wouldn’t be allowed to conduct ramp tours and they were told to leave. They came to Grants Pass because they were low on fuel, and this was the only airport with a long enough runway to allow a safe full-fuel takeoff.
According to Rob Milford, a member of the crew when they were from the Confederate Air Force—the name was later changed to the Commemorative Air Force— they were going to lose a lot of money because of this diversion. The organization relies on donations and volunteers to make it work. Rob, who worked at a CBS broadcast affiliate in Texas was very upset because no one knew Texas Raiders was there, ergo no visitors, no donations.
“I can fix that,” I said, and ran to my car. I came back with my camera gear. I did the interview on the spot and shot the B-roll. Rob allowed me to go into the cockpit to get video—also because I was a pilot and, in his words, had respect for aviation. I rushed back to the TV station and put the story together. It aired on the 6 p.m. and 11 p.m. shows. The next morning, I was there for the Texas Raiders departure—and so were hundreds of other people. Apparently, people saw the story on TV and went to the airport. The donation jug had more money in it now. As a token of appreciation, Rob gave me a scrap from the hem of his B-3 shearling flight jacket as a souvenir.
Some 10 years later, I was an aviation journalist and commercial pilot when I saw Texas Raiders on display at EAA AirVenture. Rob was still in the group. He recognized me, and we had a reunion. I told him I had been on several other B-17s since that day in southern Oregon, but Texas Raiders will always be my favorite because it was my first. And by the way, Rob—I still have that scrap of jacket.