National Geographic News
"Warbirds," to those in the know, are the great fighter planes and bombers of World War II. Hundreds of thousands were manufactured in the United States in the early 1940s, creating a massive force of air power that helped win the war.
Then, the war was over and almost overnight these planes became obsolete. The bulk of them were destroyed or sold as scrap metal.
The few that remained became valued icons to millions of Americans. Most have been lovingly restored and put on display in public and private museums; some are occasionally hauled out for air shows. But a small number still lay abandoned in the harsh and remote places on Earth where they crashed more than 50 years ago.
Today, a large subculture of collectors, restorers, and other fans of vintage World War II aircraft are passionately committed to finding abandoned warbirds and recovering them, usually at enormous cost and difficulty.
Some warbird hunters are motivated by profit, others by personal pleasure or respect for the machines. Regardless of their motivation, what drives them all, says Washington, D.C., writer Carl Hoffman, is a spirit of adventure that transcends an interest in aviation.
"They're trying to find a piece of treasure and going to the ends of the earth to bring it back," says Hoffman, the author of Hunting Warbirds: The Obsessive Quest for the Lost Aircraft of World War II (Ballantine, 2001).
Following efforts to recover several airplanes of World War II, Hoffman concluded that warbird hunting "combine[s] many of the challenges of an expedition to the North Pole or a climb to the top of Mount Everest with the challenge of recovering something huge and fragile and mechanical."
But unlike mountain climbing, he writes, there's "no template for how it should be done." Those involved in efforts to recover and restore vintage airplanes have to innovate as they go along.
Hoffman got caught up in the search for warbirds in the mid-1990s. While flying over Greenland on a magazine assignment, he saw the ruins of a B-29 "Superfortress" bomber that had crashed in 1947 (see sidebar).
Called the Kee Bird, it was one of only a few B-29s that were re-outfitted for other purposes after World War II. In February 1947 it was on a reconnaissance mission to map and photograph the Arctic and master the techniques of grid navigation required for flying in the high altitudes.
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