By Rich Pollack
Over nearly 15 years, John Bury had become very familiar with the Nine-0-Nine, a World War II vintage B-17G bomber that made annual visits to Boca Raton Airport as part of a nonprofit Wings of Freedom Tour.
The Highland Beach resident was the navigator on 28 missions of a similar “Flying Fortress” like the touring B-17 and enjoyed walking students and history buffs through the plane on display — even showing them where he sat during combat flights.
“I toured that plane so many times,” said Bury, 97, who flew in the restored aircraft three times. “I felt very attached to that plane.”
So when he learned that the Nine-0-Nine had crashed on Oct. 2 outside Hartford, Connecticut, Bury was shocked and saddened.
“When you think of the thousands of visitors here in Boca who have toured that plane over the years, it has to have been a shock to them too,” he said.
Seven of the three crew members and 10 passengers on board were killed when the B-17 crashed, including the pilot, Ernest “Mac” McCauley.
Bury and McCauley, 75, had gotten to know each other well and talked frequently when the B-17 and other vintage aircraft were in Boca.
“We talked a number of times about how sturdy and reliable it was,” Bury said.
The Massachusetts-based Collings Foundation, which puts on the Wings of Freedom tour, suspended all flights for the remainder of the year. What will happen after that is not certain, but foundation representatives say the tour could resume with some of the other planes.
“Our hope is to be able to start the tour again in Florida come January,” said Hunter Chaney, the foundation’s marketing director.
Among the other vintage planes that could be part of the tour are the smaller B-25 bomber, a P-51 escort warplane, a P-40 fighter jet and a B-24 Liberator, Chaney said.
The foundation’s 75-year-old B-17, which was one of the highlights of the Wings of Freedom tour when it came to South Florida, crashed shortly after taking off and attempting to return to Bradley International Airport.
Although the National Transportation Safety Board is continuing to investigate, its preliminary report indicates the plane had a problem with one of the engines and struck approach lights as it neared the airfield.
In South Florida, the Nine-0-Nine will be missed by Bury and the few other remaining WWII vets who came to Boca Raton Airport many times to admire it.
Bury recalled flying in the vintage aircraft during one of its recent tours and said he was a bit reluctant at first because of the memories it might bring back.
“Once we took off, it made me feel comfortable to be in such a reliable plane again,” he said. “It just brought us home safely all the time.” Ú