STOW — The homes of Barton Road trembled this weekend as tanks rolled and explosives boom at the nearby Collings Foundation, a sprawling 70-acre operation located incongruously within this quaint lakeside town.The World War II military reenactment, dubbed “The Battle for the Airfield,” takes place every year.
And every year, Debbie McNeil and her husband, Lee, flee town to avoid the siege. McNeil hurriedly tended to her yard midday last week in preparation for a trip to Florida, and she recalled bombers and fighter jets swooping over her two-story home in years past. Although a nuisance to much of the Stow community, the event is a hallmark of the nonprofit foundation and is beloved by its followers.
But in the wake of the deadly crash of the foundation’s B-17 on Oct. 2 at Bradley International Airport in Connecticut, this fleet has been indefinitely grounded and the rest of its marquee airshow, “Wings of Freedom,” is canceled for the year. Although the reenactment ran as scheduled this weekend despite the grim backdrop, the future of the foundation remains in flux amid a national discussion about the safety of vintage aircraft.
It was during the 85th stop of this year’s Wings of Freedom Tour that the foundation’s 74-year-old B-17 “Flying Fortress” sputtered, smoked, then crashed into a de-icing facility at New England’s second-biggest airport, killing seven people and injuring seven others.
The tragedy thrust the foundation, which has been revered for years by transportation and military history enthusiasts and jeered by vexed Stow locals, into the spotlight of Senate hearings and national broadcasts.
Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut has prodded authorities to investigate whether the inspection and maintenance of such planes should be more rigorous.
“Part of our respect for those planes should be to make sure they are safe whenever they are flown,” Blumenthal wrote in a Oct. 7 letter to the Federal Aviation Administration. “The FAA must justify any gray area in these regulations.”
A longtime advocate of aviation reform, the Democrat also questioned an exemption that allows the foundation to charge for rides aboard its historic planes. Wings of Freedom attendees can pay $400 or more for a half-hour flight aboard a bomber and can shell out $2,200 or more to actually pilot a Warhawk or Mustang fighter plane for a half-hour.
For some history buffs, the airshow is their first chance to interact with a historic World War II warbird outside of history books and films. In 2015, Frank Poblenz, a terminally ill former police officer, attended a Rhode Island show in the months before his death.
“Inside [the plane], Frank looked like he was home, finally at peace. That was his last big adventure. Three months later, the photo of him on the B-17 going to heaven was displayed at his funeral,” said Jeffrey Kennan, who snapped a picture of Poblenz sitting in the B-17, bathed in sunlight and gazing upward. Kennan planned to attend “The Battle for the Airfield” in Stow this weekend with a World War II veteran.
For others, such as Seth MacIntosh of Somers, Conn., flying aboard the bomber allowed him to understand the sacrifice and service of his grandfather, Walter Limberger, who served in World War II. The duo flew aboard the B-17 twice.
“I’ve never seen a bigger smile on his face than when those engines roared and the plane began to shake as we thundered down the runway,” MacIntosh said of his grandfather. “He would later tell me that it meant a great deal to him that I took such a big interest in a part of his life he had rarely talked about.”
But while the B-17 crash has elicited stories of remembrance and reverie, it dredged up concerns about the flight and maintenance of vintage aircraft.
Since 1992, there have been 21 accidents involving World War II bomber planes, resulting in 23 deaths, according to the NTSB. Before the Bradley airport crash, the foundation had seen six crashes of its vintage aircraft between 1987 and 2014, which resulted in five injuries. Two involved the B-17.
The Air Force mainly deployed B-17s in the European theater of World War II. The Collings plane never saw combat, but it was present for three different nuclear explosions. After a 13-year “cool down” period, the plane was sold as part of an 800-ton scrap pile and later restored. The foundation purchased it in 1986, according to its website.
In 1987, gusty winds caused the bomber to overshoot the runway during a Pittsburgh show and “plunge down a hillside as thousands of spectators were waiting for the show’s finale.” Three people were injured, according to a NTSB report.
In 1995, a veterans newsletter reported the B-17 made an emergency landing during a Nebraska show. One of the plane’s landing gears would not lock into place, causing the plane to land on one wheel and its wing to skid along the ground. No injuries were reported, and the damage to the plane probably did not meet the threshold needed to prompt a NTSB investigation, agency spokesman Eric Weiss said.
In the fall of 2018, the foundation launched a fund-raising campaign to raise $75,000 for a new engine for the B-17, writing in a Facebook post that after a Sept. 15 flight, “the crew started looking into issues that they experienced and after inspection, the engine was determined to be failing.” Weiss said the NTSB received reports that the B-17 had engine trouble prior to takeoff from Bradley before the crash this month, but maintained that its investigation into the cause of the crash remains ongoing.
Following the crash, the foundation expressed sorrow for those aboard the B-17, thanked first responders at Bradley, and said it was cooperating with the NTSB investigation. But Robert Collings Jr., the executive director and son of the founder, said the organization remains committed to its mission.
“Honoring our nation’s veterans and education of the younger generations has always been the main reason,” Collings told the Globe. “There always has been a concern over our nation’s history being lost; now more than ever we need to keep telling the story of the brave men and women that have ensured our freedom.”
The tragedy at Bradley marks the first fatal crash for the private nonprofit foundation, which has ballooned in scope and size since its founding in 1979.
Robert Collings initially asked to clear his Barton Road acreage to raise longhorn steer and start a Christmas tree farm, according to minutes from a 1984 Stow Conservation Commission hearing. But soon a small transportation museum, specializing in carriage rides and vintage cars, sprouted in the 70-acre plot abutting lakeside residences.
Today, the land is home to one of the preeminent vintage military collections in the nation. A newly built 65,000-square-foot hangar teems with rare relics, including one of the last working-order German Panther tanks and a piece of the Berlin Wall.
The museum is just the latest indication of the foundation’s enormous growth over the past two decades. According to federal tax filings, the foundation, which qualifies as a 501(c)3, has seen a $90 million increase in assets from 1999 to 2017. Meanwhile, the salary for Robert Collings Jr. rose from $75,000 in 2012 to $338,077 in the most recent filing.
But as the foundation grew, so did the animosity within the Stow community that felt Collings had imposed a thundering public exhibit on a sleepy residential area.
Barton Road snakes along Lake Boon, rising and falling, twisting and turning with the terrain. On a recent Monday, one resident in a faded Grateful Dead T-shirt cleared his yard of acorns. Another methodically scrubbed his boat. A balmy breeze off the lake coaxed many to leave front doors ajar. Passing cars slowed and drivers waved to pedestrians.
Until 2018, visitors accessed the foundation’s exhibits by way of this sleepy drive. Relations between the foundation and the community hit an all-time low around 2014 when the foundation acquired the world’s largest privately held collection of tanks, armored vehicles, and military artifacts from the family of Jacques M. Littlefield. Arriving tanks rumbled past lake homes, threatened the collapse of the Lake Boon levy, and occasionally toppled power lines, according to Town Meeting minutes.
The recent construction of a private driveway, dubbed “the million-dollar road” as much for its price as its value to Barton Road residents, diverted Collings traffic and tanks from the neighborhood. But Stow residents like the fleeing McNeils still do not live harmoniously with the foundation and its annual reenactment.
A woman walking her dog along Barton Road declined to be named but said “The Battle for the Airfield” is not only a nuisance but also “triggering and traumatic” for veterans in the area who might not want to relive their wartime days.
Barbara Jones, who has lived in the area since 1972, claimed “the ground shakes from the explosions” and said it is “just pounding hour after hour.”
No planes were expected to fly this weekend. As the crash investigation moves forward, the foundation’s fleet of military planes sits idle in a hangar in Florida. But if the hundreds who took to Facebook in support of the foundation following the B-17 crash are any indication of the crowds projected at “The Battle for the Airfield,” then Barton Road residents faced a holiday weekend of outsized traffic and thunder.