7 dead in Connecticut crash of WW II-era plane

A vintage B-17 bomber trying to make an emergency landing at an airport near Hartford, Conn., crashed and burned on Wednesday, killing seven people and closing the airport for several hours, authorities said.

13 people were aboard B-17 that crashed Wednesday morning

In this photo provided by witness Antonio Arreguin, smoke rises after a vintage bomber crashed Wednesday outside Bradley International Airport north of Hartford, Conn. (Antonio Arreguin/The Associated Press)

A vintage B-17 bomber trying to make an emergency landing at an airport near Hartford, Conn., crashed and burned on Wednesday, killing seven people and closing the airport for several hours, authorities said.

The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress returned to Bradley International Airport within 10 minutes of takeoff after reporting "some type of problem," but lost control on the runway and struck a maintenance facility and tanks of de-icing fluid, Connecticut Airport Authority executive director Kevin Dillon told reporters.

Six other people were hospitalized with injuries ranging from minor to critical, James Rovella, commissioner of the Department of Emergency Services and Public Protection, told a news conference.

He said some victims on the plane suffered severe burns and "are very difficult to identify."

The plane had 13 people on board, some of whom were among those killed, Rovella said.

Rescue crews from many emergency response agencies raced to the fiery scene where a plume of thick, black smoke billowed skyward after the crash at the end of the runway shortly before 10 a.m. ET.

The airport, located in the town of Windsor Locks, was closed for more than three hours after the crash.

The National Transportation Safety Board said it is investigating the cause of the incident.

Condolences pour in for families

The retired, civilian-registered plane was associated with the Collings Foundation, an educational group that brought its Wings of Freedom vintage aircraft display to the airport this week, officials said.

The vintage bomber — one of the most celebrated Allied planes of the Second World War — was used to take history buffs and aircraft enthusiasts on short flights, during which they could get up and walk around the loud and windy interior.

"Right now my heart really goes out to the families who are waiting," Gov. Ned Lamont said. "And we are going to give them the best information we can as soon as we can in an honest way."

A fire-and-rescue operation took place after the crash. The airport was closed for a few hours before most runways were reopened to travel. (Jessica Hill/The Associated Press)

The plane was a few minutes into the flight when pilots reported a problem and said it was not gaining altitude, officials said. It lost control upon touching down and struck a shed. 

Flight records from FlightAware, a flight tracking website, show the plane had travelled about 13 kilometres and reached an altitude of 244 metres.

One person on the ground was injured, officials said.

'Big ball of orange fire'

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 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, who had parked at a construction site near the airport, said he did not see the plane but heard the explosion and could feel the heat from "this big ball of orange fire" about 230 metres away.

Only a handful of the roaring, four-engine B-17s are still airworthy. They were critical in breaking Nazi Germany's industrial war machine during the Second World War.

Also crashed in 1987

The Collings Foundation said the plane in Wednesday's crash also crashed at an August 1987 air show near Pittsburgh, injuring several people. Hit by a severe crosswind as it touched down, the bomber overshot a runway and plunged down a hillside as spectators waited for the show's finale. The plane was damaged but later restored.

The crash reduces to nine the number of B-17s actively flying, said Rob Bardua, spokesperson for the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, near Dayton, Ohio.

B-17s — 23 metres long, with a wingspan of 32 metres — were used in daylight bombing raids against Germany during the Second World War. The missions were extremely risky, with high casualty rates, but helped break the Nazis' industrial war machine.

A Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, similar to the plane that crashed, is shown in a 2016 file photo. (Ted S. Warren/The Associated Press)

The B-17 that went down Wednesday was built in 1945, too late to see combat in the war, according to the Collings 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 1986.

"This is kind of shocking; it's a loss to lose a B-17," said Hamer, whose father served in the Air Force. "I mean, there aren't very many of those left."

With files from Reuters