The Collings Foundation's Boeing B-17 "Nine-O-Nine" crashed this week in Connecticut, killing seven individuals, including both pilots. It had been built in 1944, purchased in the 80s by Collings and had flown many thousands of hours, on tour as a reminder of the service rendered by air crews during WWII.
Little concrete information is available. A video clip posted on YouTube contains a radio transmission from the aircraft moments after takeoff. The pilots reported engine difficulties and were returning to land. According to an NTSB briefing, the aircraft landed about one thousand feet short of the runway threshold, shearing off a number of approach lights. The aircraft struck a deicing facility and was partially consumed in a post-crash fire.
We walked up to the side of their Flying Fortress, painted a dark green. Many of its windows were covered with temporary plastic sheets. It was beautiful.
By and by, we were asked to give the craft a little room. Several men boarded, one of whom opened the left side cockpit window. An exchange of curt comments with ground crew and the propeller of the left-most engine began to turn. The radial engine coughed intermittently, seeming reluctant to stir from a sound sleep. Eventually it assumed the rumble of a magnificently-tuned powerplant, followed in close order by the other three.
We were, at most, a hundred feet from the airplane. Once the motors were warm, the crew satisfied, she waddled to the end of the grass runway. Pausing for only a moment, the aircraft started forward. She flew directly overhead, the rumble so distinctive that someone who had even a passing interest in vintage aircraft would say - "B-17."
What must it have been like, to be at an airbase in England in the 1940s, watching as hundreds of these airplanes took off for missions on the European continent? They went aloft to uncertain futures, some of them never to return. Each carried ten men... Men. Most of the time, the aircraft commander was the oldest member of the crew...at 22 or 23. Many of the guys in back were teenagers. They did what had to be done, suffered and sacrificed together, and came home to their families when the peace they'd help win was restored.
Why do these airplanes continue to fly? To remember. We mourn the loss of life in Connecticut this week, wishing only peace and comfort to the families and friends left behind. The lost will never be forgotten, especially when The Big Bird passes overhead.
*Bert Stiles enlisted in the Army in 1942 while attending Colorado College. He flew thirty-five missions as a B-17 co-pilot, requested a transfer to fighters instead of rotating home and was killed flying a P-51 Mustang. He was 23 years old. He is buried near Liege, Belgium. His mother discovered the manuscript for Serenade to the Big Bird after his death, and had it published. It is commonly regarded as one of the finest accounts of the air war over Germany during World War Two.