Book Report: Passion Drives Quest for Lost Aircraft of World War II

D.L. Parsell
National Geographic News
December 7, 2001

Photo Gallery Go:>>

"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.

Icy Grave

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.

Amid bad weather and turbulence in the dark of night, the plane overshot its target and got lost. Running out of fuel, the pilot landed the 85,000-pound (38,000-kilogram) plane in a belly-flop on a shallow frozen lake in northern Greenland, 950 miles (1,500 kilometers) above the Arctic Circle. Two days later, the 11-man crew was rescued in a daring recovery effort that was heralded nationwide.

For almost 50 years the Kee Bird rested—remarkably intact—on the icy tundra where it was abandoned.

In his youth Hoffman had spent many dreamy hours in his father's childhood room amid WWII aviation posters—Lightnings, Hellcats, Flying Fortresses—that plastered the attic walls. Seeing the Kee Bird for the first time, he wrote, "touched a powerful nerve, like hearing a song or smelling a scent that instantly returned me to the wonder of childhood. I couldn't shake the image of it sitting there on the snow, a talisman from an age that seemed more exciting and romantic than my own."

The Kee Bird was legendary among warbird hunters. Its nearly pristine condition made it a rare artifact, and many people had dreamed of recovering it. But the harsh weather and remoteness of the crash site had deterred anyone from carrying out the mission.

As he gazed down at the wreck site, Hoffman learned from the pilot of his plane that a plan was underway to rescue the Kee Bird. So Hoffman set out to chronicle the tale of the passionate men who were determined to brave the tough conditions and bring the treasured plane home.

Bold Plan

The effort was headed by two figures well known in the warbird subculture: Darryl Greenamyer, a pilot with a string of aviation records, and Gary Larkins, a master salvager of World War II planes.

They agreed that conventional recovery methods would be too difficult and prohibitively expensive in the Arctic, so they devised a bold alternative: They would assemble a team of experts to rehabilitate the plane, then fly it out of its icy grave and to the U.S. Air Force base in Thule, 270 miles south of the site.

For more than two years the team scrounged the world for airplane parts—including four massive rebuilt Wright 3350 radial engines—and flew back and forth from the site ferrying tools, equipment, food and camp supplies, even a 10,000-pound bulldozer to carve out a runway.

They worked for weeks at a time in the bitter conditions, encountering a number of setbacks that included the death of the chief engineer, who grew ill and was airlifted out for medical care in Canada but died later.

Finally, on a clear morning in May 1995, Greenamyer and two colleagues climbed into the cockpit, fired up the engines, and taxied down the runway. Hoffman, who had spent many weeks with the crew, was on hand for the launch. "I was overcome," he says. "When the engines came to life, it was extraordinary, especially when all the engines were going at the same time."

But minutes from take-off, a fire broke out, apparently when fuel leaked onto the hot auxiliary power unit. The crew managed to escape, but the plane burned and was wrecked for good.

Deep Connection

What it is about the airplanes of World War II that inspires passion in so many people? Hoffman says his book was a search to find the answer.

"World War II was the most important event of the 20th century, and the planes of World War II essentially won the war," he says. "It was the apex of mechanical technology, which was perceived unambiguously as good technology."

Hoffman thinks millions of Americans feel connected to World War II aircraft because so many had a hand in building, repairing, and flying them.

From 1940 to 1944, he points out, the United States turned out 300,000 planes. American technology and aviation was revolutionized little more than a decade after Charles Lindburgh astounded the world by flying from New York and Paris at 100 miles (161 kilometers) an hour, and only a few years after the Great Depression.

"The construction was undertaken by many people who previously had no jobs," says Hoffman. "One day they were eking out an existence, the next day they were working seven days a week on assembly lines making really good money."

That emotional connection also came from what Hoffman calls a "primitive human love of largeness," and a fascination with mechanical things.

"People have a personal, palpable connection with the planes of WWII that doesn't occur today," he says.

A major reason for that, Hoffman believes, is that today's technology has few moving parts and grows smaller as it becomes more powerful. "Airplanes today involve pushing a button that controls a control. But in those earlier planes, there were 72 pistons, each huge, spitting oil and bellowing black smoke," he says.

Part of the quest to collect and restore vintage war planes is also a yearning for the simpler times of yesterday, Hoffman suggests.

He writes: "I began to think that it isn't winged treasure that these collectors are trying so hard to recover. It is something much more tangible—something unseen that…went up in flames with Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

"The world was hardly a simple place when the propeller and piston reigned," he adds. "But to hear a B-17's 72 pistons thrum, or see a P-15 Mustang roll in the wild blue yonder, you can almost believe that it was."

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.