The History of Nine-O-Nine

| November 16, 2019 | 18 Comments


The Original B-17 “909”

The bomber involved in Tuesday’s fatal crash in Connecticut never made it to war, but served as a search and rescue plane and water bomber.

  • The original Nine-O-Nine was a decorated veteran of the air war over Europe.
  • The second plane served as a water bomber and nuclear test target.
  • The restored “Nine-O-Nine” crashed in 1987 and was subject to an extensive rebuilding.

By Kyle Mizokami

The original Nine-O-Nine,  a Boeing B-17G “Flying Fortress” bomber was one of the nearly 13,000 built over the course of World War II, serving in both the Pacific and European theaters. Each four-engine bomber had a crew of ten, a top speed of 287 miles an hour, and could carry a payload of 4,500 bombs on a long distance bombing mission.

The B-17G “909” was assigned to the 323rd Bomb Squadron, 91st Bomb Group. Nine-O-Nine was part of the legendary Eighth Air Force, or “Mighty Eighth,” a bomber force that struck strategic targets across Germany and occupied Europe. The aircraft’s name came from the last three numbers of its serial number, and the nose art depicted a Revolutionary War soldier holding a telescope and riding a bomb.

A restored B-17, built too late to serve in World War II, was later restored to resemble the original Nine O Nine. The aircraft had a long postwar career, including a stint as a target in nuclear tests, before a lengthy rebuilding process restored her to flying condition.

This plane, serial number #44-83575, never saw combat but was converted to a search and rescue aircraft in 1951 and served in Puerto Rico. The aircraft later served as part of the Military Air Transport Service, the precursor to the Air Force’s Air Mobility Command.

Retired from U.S. military service, the aircraft was renamed “Miss Yucca” and parked on a nuclear test range in Nevada. There she was subjected to three different nuclear explosions to test the effects of nuclear weapons on aircraft. After a 13-year “cooling down period” to allow radiation to subside, the bomber was sold as scrap to the Aircraft Specialties Company, which began a lengthy restoration. The bomber then served twenty years as a forest fire water bomber, dropping water and borate on forest fires.

In 1986 the bomber was sold to the Collings Foundation, which restored the plane to wartime condition as Nine-O-Nine. In 1987 the bomber was involved in a serious crash, which the Foundation described as follows:

In August 1987, while performing at an airshow in western Pennsylvania, “Nine-O-Nine” was caught by a severe crosswind moments after touchdown. The right wing lifted in the air, finally coming down too far down the runway. Despite the efforts of her crew, she rolled off the end of the runway, crashed through a chain link fence, sheared off a power pole and roared down a 100-foot ravine to a thundering stop. The landing gear sheared off, the chin turret was smashed and pushed into the nose; the Plexiglas nose was shattered; bomb bay doors, fuselage, fuselage, ball turret, wing and nacelles all took a tremendous beating. Engines and propellers were also torn form their mounts. Fortunately, there were no fatalities to the crew or riders although there were injuries.

Following the crash Nine-O-Nine was restored for a third time, stopping at over 1,200 locations before the October 2, 2019 accident, where tragically seven people lost their lives. A full investigation is still ongoing to determine what caused the crash.
Ref. Popular Mechanics

Perry Gaskill was thoughtful enough to provide the NTSB findings of the incident.

“According to the NTSB report, the B-17G had taken off from Bradley
International Airport, Windsor Locks, Connecticut, with three crew and ten
passengers. Shortly after takeoff, a pilot had reported a problem with one
engine and said he was returning to land. It bomber wasn’t able to make it,
instead clipping a runway light and then hitting a deicer tank on a taxiway
before catching fire. Seven of the 13 aboard did not survive.

Although the aircraft was badly damaged, NTSB investigators were able to
pull together evidence which points to some likely causes of the crash.

The last verbal report by the pilot said the plane was having a “rough mag”
(magneto) problem with the starboard outboard engine (Number 4). This might
have caused faulty ignition and the engine to run rough. After the crash,
the prop pitch on Number 4 was also found to be “feathered” which meant it
was likely shut down.

Also reported was that the starboard inboard (Number 3) engine prop pitch
indicated it was in the process of being feathered at the time of the
accident. This would seem to indicate that both power plants on one side of
the aircraft were having a problem during the critical seconds when the
plane was turning from the base leg to the final approach portion of the
landing pattern.

What was also curious was that the NTSB found that the “left and right wing
flap jackscrews corresponded to a flaps retracted setting.” This apparently
would have meant the aircraft’s stall speed was likely higher than it would
be in a normal landing. Cables and controls to the flaps were found to be
intact.

Mostly ruled out as a possible cause of the crash was a problem with the
fuel. NTSB tests found no contamination in what was left of Nine O
Nine’s
fuel tanks, and said that aircraft fueled with the same 100LL
AvGas both before and after the crash had not had any issues.

If anything, the crash of Nine O Nine seems to point to the inherent risk,
however minor, of how relatively minor events can spool in a way to make
things get very bad, very quickly. In the words of Ernest K. Gann, sometimes
fate is the hunter.”

The entire NTSB report may be found here: NTSB.gov

Category: Guest Post

Comments (18)

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    • Perry Gaskill says:

      The book was better, IMHO.

      My all-time favorite Ernest K. Gann story is about the time Gann and another pilot were in Agra, India preparing to fly over The Hump into China. It was a very hot day and the C-87 cargo variant of a B-24 they were flying was loaded to the max. They barely made it off the ground and, as luck would have it, the famous Taj Mahal was directly on a line with the end of the runway. They missed it, but only by about 10 feet.

  1. 5th/77th FA says:

    A tragic loss of life and a piece of history in that crash. In just about anything you do, 100 things can happen…and 98 of those things ain’t good.

    Sometimes when we look at “American ingenuity” and what we accomplished in a fairly short time in WWII, the shear numbers are amazing. 13,000+ of just this one aircraft. And how few remain. Not to mention all the other war material. Could we duplicate those feats in this day and age if we got involved in a war on that scale again?

    One of my Aunts was a Rosie the Riveter in the Naval Ordnance Plant in Macon GA during WWII. Another worked in the Martin Marietta Plant.

  2. The Other Whitey says:

    Small quibble: the proper nomenclature for a fixed-wing wildland firefighting aircraft is “Airtanker,” abbreviated as “Tanker.” “Slurry Bomber” was used in the 50s and 60s, but is an obsolete term. “Fire bomber” and “water bomber” are incorrect.

    Many B-17s had long postwar firefighting careers. CAF Arizona Wing’s B-17, Sentimental Journey, flew for decades out of Hemet Ryan Air Attack Base as Tanker 19. Airtankers need good performance in the “low and slow” flight profile to drop effectively with good coverage (drop too high and you get too much dispersion, which renders retardant completely ineffective) without flying into a mountain while they do it. They also need to be engineered for the wing-bending strain of suddenly shedding 10,000+ pounds in-flight, which is why successful tankers are almost always either converted bombers or military transport planes designed with such action in mind. B-17s were exceptional tankers, as “low and slow” is their happy place and their huge conventional wing makes them surprisingly maneuverable for a plane of that size. They were only retired because spare parts became too scarce, thanks to DOD melting them all down. Otherwise, we would still be flying them.

    Their replacement in California was the Grumman S2F Tracker, also an exceptional airtanker (quite possibly the greatest ever), which have since been upgraded to S-2Ts with turboprop engines, lengthened fuselage, and 50% increased payload capacity. Other classic warbirds that made great tankers were TBM Avengers, F7F Tigercats, P-61 Black Widows, PB4Y-2 Privateers, PBY Catalinas, and P2V Neptunes. All great, all retired (except the S-2s, thank God). And before anybody asks, that DC-10 is a piece of shit.

  3. The Other Whitey says:

    I took my kids to see 909 and Witchcraft every time they came to town. Precious memories. I grieve for the airplane and those aboard.

  4. 26Limabeans says:

    Flown aboard her a few times, once with my dad.
    Precious memories indeed.

  5. Old NFO says:

    A truly sad loss of people and airplane. What torques me is those who were dancing in the blood before the fire was out about how ‘dangerous’ the WWII airplane are, and they should be banned from flying/carrying passengers… Grrrr…

    • rgr769 says:

      What those douches ignore is that everyone who rides in one signs a release and knows or should know that riding in 80 year old aircraft can be hazardous to one’s health in case of an emergency. Hell, riding in a relatively new light sport aircraft with a certain fake CPO at the controls can be deadly, even for a duct-taped dog. We are just thankful no uncomfortable comfort pooches were harmed in that mishap.

      P.S.: I just had a thought for an inscription on Danny Boi’s tombstone: “No animals were harmed in the making of my death.” (Too soon?)

  6. Messkit says:

    Not to take away from the horrid event, but when 909 was in town, we got together enough cash to surprise my Dad with a flight. After walking around the bird very quietly (and I’m sure too many memories flooding in), we told him he was slated to fly in her in a few more minutes.

    After a short pause, he stated loudly; “Why the hell would I want to go back up again in this piece of shit….on purpose?”

    Dad did 32 missions with with the 96th out of Snetterton UK.

  7. rgr769 says:

    It is a terrible shame we lost this old bird and lives as well. I still wear her T-shirt, and have crawled around inside her on at least five occasions. I did my B-17 flight in the EAA’s B-17. But I flew in Collings Foundation’s B-24, “Witchcraft,” that traversed the country with Nine-O-Nine.

    • 26Limabeans says:

      “flew in Collings Foundation’s B-24, “Witchcraft,” that traversed the country with Nine-O-Nine”

      I remember her as the “All American” in the
      early nineties. Not sure why the name change
      but always wanted to experience the joy.

      Bye the way, ten minutes ago I had the joy of
      saying hello to a friend in rehab that was a
      B-24 Pilot in the Pacific during WW2.
      He is doing well and we hope to have him back
      in our small group soon.
      I often complain about getting old…then I think of my B-24 friend and stow it.

      • Perry Gaskill says:

        One of the writer Stephen Ambrose’s lesser-known works is the book The Wild Blue which follows the World War II experience of George McGovern, who piloted a B-24 in the European Theater. An interesting factoid Ambrose conveys is that most pilots considered the B-17 to be pilot-friendly. Take your hands and feet off the controls, for example, and the aircraft was well-balanced enough to keep flying flat, strait, and normal. By contrast, the B-24 required a lot of attention, and was generally hard to keep in trim.

        • 26Limabeans says:

          I was perplexed by McGovern’s liberalism albeit not
          todays metastised version. He was a B-17 pilot for
          God’s sake! My dad was a B-17 gunner/togglier.
          How could he not be like my dad?

          It took a few decades but I now accept these things
          that I still do not understand. TAH helps a lot.

      • rgr769 says:

        If you are talking about B-24 Witchcraft, she was previously painted up as “Tail-of-the-Dragon.” Many of these WWII bombers have been campaigned to airshows and what not in different livery, re-creating famous aircraft that experienced combat. Witchcraft was originally operated by the RAF and left in India at war’s end. She served in the Indian Air Force for several years, before some Brit bought her in severe dilapidation and shipped her back to the UK and started to restore her, but gave up after several years. She them came to the US, and I think it took many years of restoration by Collings before she was flyable. According to her crew chief all the turrets and the bombing equipment works. She was used in a five day bombardier course this past summer, where anyone with about $3600 could train in her, Nine0Nine, and a B-25 to be a bombardier. Then one could actually drop concrete bombs on ground targets using the Norden bombsight. The course is called Bomber Week. You can read about it and see the pics. It is likely linked on Collings Foundation’s website

        • Bim says:

          Yes, She was parked on the ramp at Hanscom AFB from 92-93, where I met and worked on her. I was going through school to be an A&P and hooked up with New England Warbirds to turn wrenches on some of the old iron. At the time, they had a C1-A (COD version of the S2 tracker), a B-25, and a goonie bird. Most of the planes were loners and belonged to Collings or others. We just kept the up and flew them to airshows.

          the 24 was in really rough shape – turbos just pissed out oil, engines all ran really rough, etc. – BUT, it was amazing to go inside her (lol!) as all the original gear was still installed. Someone had replaced the 50 cals with black painted pipe but the bombsight, radios, oxygen tanks/manifold, ammo feeds and cans – everything else- was intact and original, if not very worn. I had grown up on tales from the old timers and in WWII movies of fighter and bomber combat and the day I first walked through that plane and sat near the waist gunners area was the first time the truth really hit home – When you are at 20,000 feet, the only thing shielding you from the 150 MPH wind and the enemies bullets was one sheet of .025″ aluminum on the outer skin. It was incredibly sobering.

          I believe she got bought by Kermit Weeks (Planes of Fame) in 94 and lives in California in deep storage. I hope to see that bird again.

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