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The Massachusetts nonprofit whose World War II-era bomber crashed this month is planning a return to the skies. The Collings Foundation grounded flights temporarily after seven people died aboard its B-17.
At the foundation's history museum in Hudson, a World War II reenactment began on a solemn note last weekend. Actors and spectators observed a moment of silence for fallen soldiers and for the crew and passengers who died just 10 days earlier on one of the group's exhibition flights.
The foundation, which declined requests for an interview, decided to move forward with the event, which features vintage tanks and other weaponry in the hands of some 200 actors. It draws thousands of paying customers every year.
Reenactors shot blanks, and there were no planes soaring overhead, as in previous years. But there was plenty of real smoke to transport the audience to a battlefield in Europe circa 1944.
"The kits are spot-on. The vehicles look fantastic. You couldn't ask for a better reenactment," said veteran Edward Chagnon.
He said the reenactment shows why the Collings Foundation's live-action brand of history is so valuable. It was such an immersive and emotional experience for Chagnon that he choked up as he expressed his gratitude.
"We appreciate what these guys do," he said.
The reenactment also impressed history buffs Dave Pulzetti and Kay Spofford. They came after attending a Collings Foundation air show in Nashua, where they saw the very plane that would crash just a few days later.
"We have pictures of standing in front of that B-17," Pulzetti said. "And, as they described it, they're actually museums — flying museums."
"I think it would be wonderful to continue to try to showcase that," added Spofford, "so that we remember not to go to war again."
The Collings Foundation hopes to do exactly that. But it needs a renewal in what's known as the Living History Flight Experiences program, which allows vintage planes to fly without black boxes and some other modern safety equipment. Some critics are calling for the Federal Aviation Administration to reevaluate the whole program.
"The same kind of rigorous criteria and standards should apply to these planes as to other planes that fly in the air," Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said at a news conference last week. Blumenthal represents the state where the crash occurred.
The FAA wouldn't confirm a review, but the Collings Foundation is concerned enough to ask supporters to write letters on its behalf.
More than 1,000 people have responded to the call, including Joy McCluskey of East Brady, Pennsylvania. She said her sons' flight in the foundation's B-17 was special because their grandfather flew in the same kind of plane in World War II. And they got to talk about it with Pop, as they called him, before he died.
"It was like, 'How'd you feel when you were in that small turret?' And, 'Weren't you scared to death?' And other questions that come about because they were actually in the plane," McCluskey said.
Another letter came from Ted Luebbers of Tavares, Florida. He went up in the B-17 when the Collings Foundation's Wings of Freedom Tour came to a nearby airport about 10 years ago.
"It was worth the $400 for a once-in-a-lifetime experience," he said.
Luebbers contends that too little is known about the recent crash to demand changes from the Collings Foundation or other groups that fly vintage planes.
"I think we should all be waiting for the study results to find out exactly why this plane crashed, and not jump to any conclusions," he said.
But waiting may not be possible. Crash investigations by the National Transportation Safety Board typically take a year or longer, and the Collings Foundation's permit expires in just five months.
Regulators will likely have to decide whether to grant an extension before the crash investigation is complete.
This segment aired on October 17, 2019.
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