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Westfield B-17 Tour Stop Personifies ‘Keep ’em Flying’
By Sean Elliott, Vice President, Advocacy and Safety, Experimental Aircraft Association
October 17, 2019 - Last weekend's tour stop of our B-17 Aluminum Overcast at Westfield, Massachusetts, took on added importance as the airplane returned to passenger flights after the tragic multifatality accident on October 2 of the Collings Foundation's Nine-O-Nine in Windsor Locks, Connecticut.
After hosting ground tours only on October 5-6 in Hyannis, Massachusetts, out of respect for the Collings Foundation and those involved in the accident, it was essential to us to get the B-17 flying once again. The response we received in Westfield was not only extraordinarily gratifying, but also an important public statement about the importance of flying these aircraft.
Since our tour stop was less than 30 miles from where the accident took place, we knew there would be high media attention paid to our tour operations and flights. The media flight went as scheduled on Thursday, October 10, giving us an opportunity to explain the operations of the aircraft and why this airplane is so important to tell the story of the greatest generation during World War II.
Here's where it's important to give credit to our amazing volunteer crews, both in Hyannis and Westfield. They knew the spotlight would be on them regarding operations and safety, and they responded brilliantly — answering every question, expressing sincere sadness at the nearby tragedy — and they were steadfast in the reasons why the tour and flying the airplane was important. We could not be more proud of these volunteers for their work and professionalism over the past two weeks.
Those high EAA standards were noticed and complimented. The FAA's Bradley Flight Standards District Office stopped on October 10 for a ramp check and gave a complete green light to the operation. Hundreds of people came to see the airplane over its three-day visit to Westfield, and host EAA Chapter 166 offered invaluable local support to our team.
"We did not experience any negative comments but [received] many like, 'We're glad you guys are flying!' and 'Keep it flying!'" said Steve Socolosky of Chapter 166. "Even when we went in to town to eat Friday evening, a few folks came up to us saying the same thing!"
That is a key point — public interest in the airplane and the story of the heroic crews who flew them in World War II are still very high. People want to experience this airplane. They want to fly in it, whether that's to connect with a family member who served at that time or for their own interest. Through the nine flights we made over Westfield last weekend, that connection was evident and our conviction to fly Aluminum Overcast was strengthened.
There is still work to do. The tragic October 2 accident is still being investigated, with the NTSB releasing its preliminary report just this week. EAA has let the NTSB and the FAA know we stand ready to offer technical expertise regarding the airplane and the high operational standards of the program whenever asked. We understand EAA's important role in this unique community of aircraft. As I mentioned several months ago in a piece about flying this treasured aircraft, an airplane is a machine, but I believe each one also has a soul. That soul soars when it is flown and its story becomes real and shared.
The events of the past two weeks make our conviction to fly them even stronger.