Cover image for Hunting warbirds : the obsessive quest for the lost aircraft of World War II
Hunting warbirds : the obsessive quest for the lost aircraft of World War II
Hoffman, Carl, 1960-
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Publication Information:
New York : Ballantine Books, 2001.
Physical Description:
x, 245 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
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UG1240 .H62 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
UG1240 .H62 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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"Winged treasure" they call them--the lost remains of the great American fighter planes and bombers that won World War II. Hellcats and Superfortresses, Corsairs and Dauntlesses. Produced by the thousands at the height of the war, and then cast off as scrap in the decades that followed, these warbirds are now worth literally anything--fortunes, families, even lives--to the people who search for them. Like many men, writer Carl Hoffman was bitten by the warbird bug as a child. But he never imagined that he would one day witness and participate in a heroic adventure himself--the most audacious warbird rescue attempt of all time. The crash of the Kee Bird B-29 Superfortress made banner headlines in 1947 when a team of Air Force pilots pulled off the near-miraculous feat of locating the wreck in Greenland and snatching its stranded crew from the teeth of the arctic winter. For nearly half a century, the almost perfectly intact warbird lay abandoned on a lake of ice--but not forgotten. Fifty years later, with collectors paying upward of a million dollars for salvageable World War II planes, two intense fanatics, legendary test pilot Darryl Greenaymer and starry-eyed salvage wizard Gary Larkins, hatched the insane idea of launching an expedition to Greenland to find the Kee Bird, bring it back to life, and fly it out. In this riveting adventure of man, machine, and history, the quest for winged treasure ultimately extends far beyond the search for the Kee Bird. Hoffman literally crisscrosses the country to track down the key players in the high-stakes warbird game. He meets a retired Midwestern carpenter who crammed every inch of his yard with now-precious warbirds during the lean years when they were considered junk; attends an air show where crowds go wild at the sight of four of the twelve air-worthy B-17s flying in formation; speaks to pilots and mechanics, millionaire businessmen and penniless kids--all of them ready to drop everything in pursuit of these fabled planes. "These planes are a sickness, that's all there is to it," one warbird fan tells Hoffman as he lovingly polishes his vintage B-17. In this superbly crafted narrative, Hoffman turns the warbird craze into the stuff of high drama and awesome adventure.Hunting Warbirdstakes us to the heart of one of the most fascinating obsessions of our time.

Author Notes

Carl Hoffman is a freelance journalist who writes for numerous magazines.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Warbirds are vintage World War II aircraft. They are among the world's prize collectibles and the objects of an often affluent, always dedicated, sometimes wonderfully mad affection. Hoffman takes us questing for rare aircraft with warbird hunter Gary Larkins and air racer Darryl Greenamyer, partners in repairing a B-29 and flying it off the Greenland icecap, where it crash-landed in 1947. After that venture, Greenamyer actually had Kee Bird executing a takeoff run until it caught fire--the end of an epic struggle that recalls the more peril-ridden of Himalayan expeditions. If he looked high, Larkins looked low, plumbing the depths of Alaska's bogs and Greenland's fjords for B-17s. A fine, noncondescending introduction to those who have warbirds in their hangars, written in clear journalistic prose by a clear-headed journalist who managed to remain on speaking terms with all the colorful characters he was covering. Suitable for aviation, true adventure, and travel collections alike, not to mention the plain-old-entertaining-reading shelves. --Roland Green

Publisher's Weekly Review

Sent to Greenland by Smithsonian magazine to write a piece about Navy P-3 Orion aircraft and their search for submarines, freelance journalist Hoffman was taken up by the crew he was interviewing, with a detour past the ruins of a WWII-era B-29 "Flying Fortress," the Kee Bird. Hoffman became hooked, and he found he was not alone in his obsession about the downed plane, which had crashed at the edge of a lake 40 years earlier, and was nearly perfectly preserved. In a painstaking blow-by-blow reconstruction, Hoffman charts three separate expeditions that were made by an assortment of amateur obsessives to salvage read: restore and fly the Kee Bird, writing in the first person when he went along on a trip, and in the third when recounting the adventures of the diverse subculture of plane salvagers when he couldn't. Their efforts go for naught, and anyone who doesn't already have the flier bug will have shut the book before the marooned bird's engines catch and then catch fire. Written with assurance, Hoffman's debut will certainly hold the buff market rapt, and will also find some readers of extreme sports and travel narratives, but it doesn't have the breadth to break out, though a 5-city author tour could help draw in readers. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

A select group of people, fanatic about fabled World War II warplanes, expend vast sums on the recovery of battered wrecks from unlikely places, then spend even greater sums restoring the planes. Most of them want to fly the warbirds, but some just like the detective and engineering challenges involved. Like any special interest group, they have their politics, relationships, successes, and failures. It is now 56 years after the war, and most of the planes have been melted down; little tangible remains of that part of history. For instance, of more than 100,000 B-29s built, only two are still flying. Journalist Hoffman (Smithsonian, New York Times Magazine) had the good fortune to have been an observer at the attempted salvage of the Kee Bird, an almost undamaged B-29 that crashed gently in northern Greenland. This epic tale of unbelievable risk, tragedy, heroism, and obsession, details a strange hobby, yet the author spins it into an intriguing tale. Recommended for libraries with aerospace or World War II interests. Edwin B. Burgess, U.S. Army Combined Arms Research Lib., Fort Leavenworth, KS (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



CHAPTER ONE: TODAY'S THE DAY Daugaard Jensen Land, Greenland; May 1995 "Hey! Wake up! Today's the day. I'm ready." I opened my eyes and heard Darryl Greenamyer's boots crunching across the snow on his morning reveille. The tent was hot and bright. Steam rose from my sleeping bag. I crawled from the damp bag, unzipped the tent flaps and poked my head out. Last week it was blowing seventy miles an hour, the wind chill was fifty degrees below zero Fahrenheit, and I couldn't see five feet out of the tent. Today there wasn't a cloud in the sky and the cold air was still and gin-clear. The white snow and blue sky were dazzling, nearly blinding. Just the day we'd been waiting for. Even for a notorious former test pilot like Darryl Greenamyer, a frozen desert 500 miles south of the North Pole in northern Greenland was a hell of a place to take wing in a forty-five-ton, four-engine bomber that hadn't moved in forty-eight years. The weather had to be perfect. I slid a pair of heavy fleece pants over my long johns and pulled on my coveralls. The murmur of voices from the mess tent carried across the snow and I crunched over to join them. The shiny B-29, Darryl's obsession for three years, stood nearby on its big tires, a winged aluminum cylinder lying on the Arctic plain. A winter's worth of snow rose around it, littered with a junkyard of oil drums, air compressors, tattered boxes, and batteries. There was not a tree or bush for 800 miles in any direction. To the east, above the surrounding snow-covered hills, glowed the Humboldt Glacier, 10,000 feet thick. The Inuit village of Qaanaaq lay 150 miles to the south, Thule Air Base another hundred miles beyond. To the north was nothing but ice and then the frozen Arctic Ocean stretching to the Pole. For forty-eight years--since 1947--the Kee Bird had been an inanimate chunk of aluminum. Today, it would have a chance to move again. But the Kee Bird didn't just have to move, it had to compete with the gods and fly. The very idea seemed both glorious and impossible. Nine months ago on this barren stage, Rick Kriege had shivered helplessly in his sleeping bag and Cecelio Grande prayed on his knees in despair. A few days ago two tents had been shredded into oblivion by the raging wind. But now, through force of will and mechanical ingenuity, in one of the remotest places on earth, Darryl and his band of mechanics had installed four new engines, new propellers, new tires, new flight controls, a new rudder, and new wiring, all without the aid of governments or corporations. No one had ever done anything like that before. This whole business of recovering airplanes from the far corners of the world was new, and it combined many of the challenges of an expedition to the North Pole or a climb to the top of Everest with the challenge of recovering something huge and fragile and mechanical. Beyond the physical and mental stamina demanded of a polar explorer or a mountain climber, this quest required mechanical savvy, a mountain of tools and heavy equipment, and razor-sharp piloting skills. And unlike climbing a mountain, there was no template for how it should be done. This was new territory, and it was more like something from the time of Shackleton or Peary or the Wright Brothers, when no one knew what they were doing. The rules were invented as they went along. The mess tent was primitive green Army surplus canvas, floorless, and scarred with long tears from last week's near-hurricane-force winds. Inside, Darryl was sipping a cup of steaming tea. "You nervous?" I asked. "No," he said, cupping the hot mug in grease-stained hands. A week's worth of gray stubble covered his chin and cheeks. He was small, with twinkly blue eyes, dimples, and a big smile that made him appear elfin, innocent, especially in his baggy brown Carhartt coveralls. A bulky green wool cap covered his head. "I've always thought that if something bad was going to happen I'd know it and have time to react. And anyway," he said, "when your time comes there's nothing you can do." It was a typical Darryl answer, but so far he'd been right. He was fifty-nine years old and few men had ever flown as fast or as high as Darryl Greenamyer. Still, he'd never flown a B-29. Ever. And certainly not one whose exact weight was unknown, whose engines hadn't ever run more than a few minutes, and which would be taking off from a makeshift runway of crusty snow two feet thick. "Yeah, we'd better clean up that cockpit," said Matt Jackson. "When you blast off it'll be wild in there. Hoo, wha! Shit'll be flying all over the place." Matt was thirty-six, brash and barrel-chested with a maniacal laugh, an air racer and talented aviation mechanic who'd idolized Darryl ever since he was a kid. "And we've got to get out of here," he said, suddenly serious. "This place sucks." Any hour a maelstrom of wind and snow might howl into camp, and even a two-week delay could take us to the onset of spring when the lake--Darryl's runway--would melt. "We'll heat up engine number two, move to number one, and hopefully they'll stay warm while we work on three and four." We trudged out to the Kee Bird. Darryl grabbed the bottom rung of the ladder trailing from the nose and swung himself into the cockpit. A rat's nest of wires clogged the floor. The green Bakelite yokes that controlled the plane were cracked and the glass cockpit windows were made opaque by a spiderweb of hairline fractures. Gauges were missing. Insulation hung from the ceiling. The back of the pilot's seat cushion was gone, so Darryl stuffed an old pillow behind him, sat down, and latched his wide cotton seatbelt. The only new pieces of equipment in the cockpit were the radio and GPS satellite navigation system. Al Hanson, an old friend of Darryl's and a pilot and collector of exotic airplanes, climbed into the copilot's seat, followed by Thad Dulin, who settled into the flight engineer's seat on the Kee Bird's right side, his back to the copilot. A big, round former Texas oilman with a drawl as thick as the crude he'd once hunted, Thad was a lover of World War II-era warplanes and one of the few men under seventy qualified by the Federal Aviation Administration as a B-29 flight engineer. Facing the panel of gauges and switches and throttles in quad- ruplicate that controlled the bomber's four 2,200-horsepower piston engines, Thad started flicking switches to engine number two. Battery switch: on. The voltage meters flickered, the age-bleached needles rising slowly to twenty-eight volts. Auxiliary power unit: on. Mixture levers: auto rich. Throttle: cracked open half an inch. Booster pumps: on. Start circuit breakers: on. Booster coil: on. Darryl stuck his fingers out of the small window to his left and twirled his hand. "Clear," he shouted. Thad hit the start and prime switches simultaneously. The starter emitted a metallic, high-pitched whine. The propeller jerked and then slowly began to spin. After it completed two revolutions, Thad hit the magneto, sending a spark to the engine. A cloud of black smoke and a tongue of orange flame exploded from the exhaust like the crack of a cannon. The engine coughed, the prop stopped a moment but then twirled faster. More cannon shots and clouds of black smoke spit from the exhaust pipe. Finally engine number two exploded to life with a roar. The Kee Bird quivered as the prop beat in a resonant bass. Thad watched with satisfaction as the oil pressure and oil temperature rose safely into the green. It wouldn't be long, he knew. He was still scared, though. He didn't want to die. Ten minutes later, engine number one started in a hail of noxious smoke as Darryl's head peered out the open cockpit window. An hour after that, three and four roared on, all four engines and 8,800 horsepower now thundering in a symphony of pistons. Clouds of snow billowed from behind the props, and the bomber was suddenly no longer an inanimate object but a thawed beast with open eyes and beating heart. The engines drummed and the frozen ground shook under my feet just twenty feet away, the pulse of seventy-two pistons and four sets of sixteen-foot-long propellers more intoxicating than any whining jet engine or turboprop. We scurried to clear the last hoses, fuel drums, cans of lubricant, and batteries away from the nose wheel. "You've got the throttles now, Darryl," Thad said over the intercom. Darryl placed his left hand across the four throttle levers. Thad, at the flight engineer's station, placed his hand over a duplicate set. Clutching the yoke with his right hand, his feet on the rudder pedals, Darryl eased the four levers forward as Thad adjusted the propellers' pitch, or angle, so they'd bite into the air like screws biting into wood. B-29s had no nose-wheel steering, and aerodynamic control from the rudder wouldn't kick in until the plane hit sixty-five miles an hour. Until then the pilot used only the engines and the brakes to turn. Darryl hoped he'd be able to steer the plane. Louder and louder the engines thundered and screamed, shaking the ground. The plane strained and shook but didn't budge, as if it were chained to the ground. Then it moved forward an inch. Darryl throttled up even further. Near maximum power, the Kee Bird suddenly jerked out of its icy hole, then paused an instant as Darryl eased back on the power. He turned the plane to the right and picked up speed. Inside, it felt like being in the grip of a giant paint shaker. Bouncing violently on the rough, windblown snow, Darryl struggled to control the airplane. Al's body jerked against his seatbelt. Thad could barely keep his hands on the throttle as Darryl made a wide, arcing turn to the right. "Go, Darryl, go!" Matt screamed, leaping up and down, as the Kee Bird bounded past him across the snow. Four white rooster tails streaming fifty feet behind the engines, a ghost was thundering to life across the Arctic for the first time since February 1947, when 1st Lt. Vern Arnett took off from Ladd Field in Fairbanks, Alaska, on what was supposed to be just another routine mission. Excerpted from Hunting Warbirds: The Obsessive Quest for the Lost Aircraft of World War II by Carl Hoffman All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Author's Notep. ix
Introduction: Freeze-Dried Memoriesp. 1
1 Today's the Dayp. 7
2 The Last Flight of the Kee Birdp. 13
3 Superfort on Icep. 29
4 Warbird Feverp. 37
5 First Come, First Servedp. 51
6 The Laboratory Is Openp. 72
7 Living the Fantasyp. 84
8 A Bear by the Tailp. 97
9 Cry Unclep. 123
10 Fire and Icep. 135
11 Smokep. 160
12 Precious Metalp. 165
13 A Peculiar Passionp. 178
14 Soonerp. 191
15 Laterp. 214
16 The Last Good Machinesp. 223
Epilogue: Return of the Kee Birdp. 239
Acknowledgmentsp. 242