Minutes before a fiery crash on Wednesday engulfed one of the last World War II-era B-17 bombers still in service, killing seven, one passenger posted a picture from the flight on Facebook.
“Not much of a view from the seats,” Robert Riddell, 59, wrote for the caption of the blurry photo that showed part of the cockpit and vintage mechanical equipment inside the aircraft’s unadorned steel interior.
They would be the last public words from Riddell, a World War II-history enthusiast from East Granby, Connecticut, who had excitedly documented his opportunity to ride in the 1944 bomber in the days before the doomed flight. The aircraft, with 13 people aboard, crashed at Bradley International Airport near Hartford, Connecticut, about eight minutes after takeoff.
“He was brilliant, loving, funny, reliable, compassionate and the best man I’ve ever known,” his wife, Debra, wrote on Facebook in announcing his death. “The world lost an amazing person today.”
It’s been a long and tragic day. Words cannot express how devastated I am. At this point, all survivors have been…
The identities of the victims and survivors were being released at a news conference on Thursday afternoon, but a portrait of those aboard began to emerge earlier in the day from accounts provided by relatives and in social media posts. They told a story of a manifest heavy with public servants — firefighters, retired police officers and military men — who had boarded the aircraft eagerly, in anticipation of a demonstration flight that quickly went terribly wrong.
Just in: The names of all the victims of the B-17 crash at Bradley International Airport. pic.twitter.com/P3NrqAIo4H
— Heidi Voight (@HeidiVoight) October 3, 2019
Five minutes after takeoff at 9:45 a.m. on Wednesday, the pilot alerted air-traffic control of an issue with an engine, and requested permission to return to the airport for an emergency landing, Jennifer Homendy of the National Transportation Safety Board said on Wednesday night.
The plane, carrying three crew members and 10 passengers, circled back and descended toward one of the runways, she said. On the descent, the plane, which witnesses said was flying with its right wing lower than its left, struck an approach light that was 1,000 feet from the threshold of the runway. In total, the plane hit about 30 approach lights as it sped toward the airport. At 9:53 a.m., the bomber crashed into a de-icing facility at the airport and burst into flames.
Homendy said that the NTSB had received witness reports stating that they saw work being conducted on one or two engines before takeoff. She noted, however, that NTSB was still in the early stages of its investigation.
Six of those aboard survived and were taken to hospitals, some with severe and some with minor injuries. One of them was an Air National Guard member who “popped the hatch” in the rear of the aircraft and helped others exit despite his own injuries, Maj. Gen. Francis J. Evon Jr., of the Connecticut National Guard told WTNH, a local television station.
“He is very familiar with the back of an aircraft,” Evon said, heralding the man’s heroism. Officials identified him on Thursday as James Traficante, an Air National Guard command chief.
The plane was operated by a flight team from the Collings Foundation, and was at the airport as part of a Wings of Freedom tour that included demonstration flights on vintage aircraft. The foundation released a statement pledging to fully cooperate with the investigation.
Among those killed was Gary Mazzone, 66, a retired captain from the Vernon Police Department who had joined the force in 1976, the department said. In January, he had retired from his second career as an inspector with the chief state’s attorney’s office in Litchfield County in Connecticut.
His son, Daniel Mazzone, a lawyer for the U.S. Army who is stationed in Fort Rucker, Alabama, described his father as a history enthusiast with a special interest in World War II and Connecticut.
“This was an opportunity to be in the back of an aircraft that had played a major role in World War II, and he wanted to see what that felt like,” he said.
“He was a career public servant, and he taught all of us the importance of that,” Mazzone said about himself, his two siblings, who are both schoolteachers, and his two stepsisters. “He believed in hard work. I’m just very thankful for the values that he instilled in us.”
Rhonda Hebert said she first met the elder Mazzone in the 1980s when she was a reporter for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Connecticut. The two kept in touch, she said, and he had just called her last week to touch base after hearing “Help Me Rhonda” on the radio, brightening her day.
“He was smart, funny and kind,” said Hebert, who is now a spokeswoman for the Connecticut court system. “If you were in a pinch, he was the kind of police officer you would want to come help you.”
Lt. William Meier, a spokesman with the Vernon Police Department, said Mazzone also volunteered as a fundraiser for the Special Olympics.
“He was just a real passionate person,” he said. “We are very saddened and shocked by this.”
Eric Whyte, a pilot with the Wings of Freedom Tour who was not on the aircraft, posted on Facebook that the B-17’s veteran pilot, Ernest “Mac” McCauley, had died in the crash.
Today has been tough. I appreciate all the outreach of support. As some of you know I am very lucky to be one of the…
McCauley, 75, of Long Beach, California, had been interviewed in July when the plane traveled to Spokane, Washington, as part of the tour. He said at the time that he had been flying the bomber for 21 years. The NTSB said on Thursday that McCauley had logged 7,300 flight hours in the B-17
“This is such a great airplane,” McCauley told the Spokesman-Review as he looked up from tinkering with one of the engines. “She doesn’t like crosswinds too much. When the weather is really rough, it’s like wrestling a gorilla. For the most part, it’s a pleasure to fly.”
James Roberts, 48, of Ludlow, Massachusetts, was also among the dead, his brother, Joe Roberts, said.
His brother, he said, was a supervisor at Hood Dairy who loved gaming, snowboarding, comic books, the New England Patriots and the Boston Red Sox. “He was a big history buff, and was really looking forward to the flight,” Joe Roberts said.
“We are just in disbelief,” he said, adding that another brother was supposed to be on the flight, too, but could not get the day off work. “He was a good guy. He cared about people. It’s just way too soon.”
Also killed in the crash were Michael Foster, 71, the co-pilot; David Broderick, 56, of West Springfield, Massachusetts; and Robert Rubner, 64, of Tolland, Connecticut, the State Police said.
Two firefighters from the Simsbury Volunteer Fire Company survived the crash. “At this time both members are being treated at the hospital,” the company posted on Facebook. “We ask that you keep the families in your thoughts.”
Mitch Melton, the flight engineer, also survived, suffering a broken arm, broken ribs and internal injuries, his relative, Tori Boykin, told ABC News.
Melton, 34, was formerly in the Army and Air Force, where he was an aviation mechanic, Boykin said.
The aircraft, a Flying Fortress B-17G bomber, was accepted into service in April 1945 — too late for World War II combat, though it was used for air-sea rescue duties, according to the Aviation Geek Club blog.
It regularly appeared at air shows, painted to replicate the famous “Nine-O-Nine” B-17 bomber, which flew 140 missions in World War II without incident and was considered one of the luckiest aircraft in service, McCauley told the Spokesman-Review. In the last two weeks, the aircraft flew more than two dozen times on short flights, according to Flight Aware, a website that tracks flights.
In all, some 13,000 B-17 Flying Fortress bombers were manufactured by Boeing in the 1930s and 1940s, serving a vital role in aerial bombing campaigns during the war. The planes, with four piston-driven engines, lack the electronic equipment of modern aircraft, and only 16 such planes remain registered in the United States, officials said.