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Mission: Bring Spy Plane in From Cold : Aviation: Retrieval team plans to fly home B-29 that went down in Greenland in 1947.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It was one of the first top-secret missions of the Cold War as the United States and Soviet Union, their World War II alliance destroyed by distrust, began spying on each other.

The mission ended with the crash-landing of an Air Force B-29 Superfortress on a perpetually frozen lake in an uncharted section of Greenland on Feb. 21, 1947.

Now, 47 years later, the ill-fated spy plane called the Kee Bird--well-preserved by the extreme Arctic temperatures--may finally be coming in from the cold.

A retrieval team headed by three men from Southern California is at the Kee Bird crash site 250 miles north of Thule, Greenland. Within weeks, the team hopes to fly the big plane home after outfitting it with new engines, propellers and instrumentation. The Kee Bird’s public debut is tentatively set for the Reno National Championship Air Races in September.

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The possible return of the Kee Bird is an event much anticipated in the world of vintage airplane buffs who are passionately dedicated to keeping alive the memory of these magnificent aircraft and the brave men who flew them.

“This is something larger than life,” said Wayman Dunlap, editor and publisher of Pacific Flyer Aviation News in Oceanside. “It means a lot more than just a bunch of sheet (metal). If they can bring the Kee Bird back, it’ll be a national treasure.”

Stranded for three brutal days in the darkness of the polar winter, the 11-man crew of the bomber was rescued in an effort so daring that it earned the captain of the rescue plane a personal commendation from President Harry S. Truman. Newspapers and newsreels told the harrowing tale of the crash and rescue.

Military brass warned all those involved in the flight and rescue never to reveal that the plane had been looking for evidence that the Soviets were building military bases near the North Pole.

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The fliers returned to Ladd Field in Fairbanks, Alaska, and were back flying other weather and reconnaissance missions within days. But their plane was left behind, out of fuel and with busted wheels and bent propellers but otherwise in mint condition, captured forever in an aspic of ice.

Of 4,000 B-29s built by Boeing during World War II, only one, named Fifi and now in the possession of the Texas-based Confederate Air Force, is in flying condition. The Kee Bird, named for a mythical Arctic bird that stays in the cold weather while smarter birds fly south for the winter, would be the second.

The rediscovery of the plane was something of a historical fluke. In 1985, Giles Kershaw, a British pilot making an Arctic exploration flight, looked down from his DC-3 and saw the Kee Bird sitting where the crew had left it.

Among those who were excited by Kershaw’s discovery were Tom Hess, an ex-Army pilot who owns Roadway Construction of Newport Beach, a trucking, grading and excavation firm; Darryl Greenamyer, a retired Lockheed test pilot living in Rancho Santa Fe, and Ascher Ward, a carpet store owner and airplane restoration specialist who lives in the San Fernando Valley.

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The three formed a partnership to retrieve the Kee Bird, renovate it and then sell it to a museum or private interest. The cost of the project is estimated at $500,000, but Ward estimates that the sale price could be $1 million or more.

“To the right party, a million dollars is not an unrealistic amount,” Ward said. Even Japanese investors have expressed interest.

The interest of the five Kee Bird crew members who hitched a ride this week on an Air Force transport from McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey to Thule to oversee the retrieval is more sentimental than financial. A sixth crew member died recently at age 76 but, in accordance with his final wishes, his ashes will be spread near the Kee Bird.

Much of their talk will be of the Kee Bird’s pilot, Lt. Vern Arnett, who died a year after the Kee Bird crash when he crash-landed another B-29 and froze to death while attempting to go for help.

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“Arnett is the reason we’re alive today,” said John Lesman, the Kee Bird’s flight engineer. “The way he put the Kee Bird down on that lake was magnificent.”

Lesman, 70, is a retired Air Force colonel living in Miami. He was a new lieutenant when the Kee Bird took off from Ladd Field on its spy mission. Within hours the plane was trapped in a heavy polar cloud cover that made it impossible to see enough stars to use celestial navigation.

In his book “World In Peril,” Ken White, whose father, Maj. Maynard White, was commander of the spy mission--code-named “Project Nanook"--suggests that the Kee Bird may have been lured off course by bogus radio signals from the Soviets.

For hours the plane circled, unsure of its location, unable to break through the clouds. With the plane desperately low on fuel, the pilot’s last message to Ladd Field was: “We’re heading into the sun and we’re going to set her down.”

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What Arnett thought was a patch of snow was a frozen lake. The Kee Bird hit tail-first, skidded for 800 feet and came to rest near the shore.

Miraculously, there was no fire and the plane did not spin or flip. The first crewman out of the plane, Staff Sgt. Paul McNamara, knelt on the ice, made the sign of the cross and offered a prayer of thanks.

None of the crew knew where the Kee Bird had landed. “No one even considered Greenland,” White wrote.

At nightfall, as the crew prepared for temperatures that sunk to 50 below zero, navigators were able to see enough stars to figure longitude and latitude and relay that information to Ladd Field, 1,500 miles away.

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“The radio operator asked me: ‘What are you guys doing in Greenland?’ ” Lesman said. “I told him: ‘We came down to shoot a few polar bears.’ ”

Although the Air Force prides itself on its determination and ability to rescue downed fliers, the Kee Bird rescue was unprecedented. Never had a rescue been attempted where the weather was so brutal and the distance between the downed fliers and the nearest base was so vast.

Eight rescue planes searched for the Kee Bird in relay teams during daylight. When the plane was spotted, crates full of supplies, including a nudie calendar from a Fairbanks bar, were dropped by parachute.

Several rescue plans were considered, including an experimental glider that could be snagged by a plane making a low pass over the lake. That plan was scrapped in favor of landing a C-54 transport.

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But it was not known whether the transport could land on the ice without cracking it or skidding into rough terrain. On his second approach, the C-54 pilot decided to risk a dicey landing on a runway illuminated by flares.

“He touched his wheels and completed the landing, but overshot and ran into soft snow and rougher terrain,” White wrote.

Kee Bird crew members scrambled aboard. All sensitive equipment aboard the Kee Bird was destroyed lest it fall into enemy hands. All supplies and nonessentials were left behind to keep down the weight of the C-54. One of the few things the Kee Bird crew made sure to bring back was the pinup calendar.

Rockets were attached to the C-54 to give it additional power for takeoff. It started slowly down the ice runway. At about 50 m.p.h., the rockets were fired and the lumbering transport became airborne to cheers.

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“I kind of hated to get rescued that quickly,” said Kee Bird crewman Robert (Lucky) Luedke, now 71 and the owner of a Denver demolition company. “I had gone to Alaska for excitement and I was having it.”

Attachment to the B-29 is intense among veterans and airplane buffs. The big bomber with a wingspan of 141 feet and the flying range of 4,000 miles was the most technologically advanced and militarily fearsome warplane of World War II.

“It is generally agreed by military historians that the B-29 ended the war against the Japanese,” said Randy Sohn, a retired commercial airline pilot and bomber checkout pilot for the Confederate Air Force, which has 136 World War II aircraft in its collection.

Squadrons of B-29s--each plane carrying 10 tons of bombs--struck Japanese cities and military installations from bases in India, China and the Marianas beginning in early 1944. The Enola Gay, which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and the Bockscar, which dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, were B-29s.

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The task of bringing the Kee Bird back is daunting: Four new engines and new propellers have had to be mounted, new instrumentation has been installed, and the fuel system has been converted to injection to eliminate the risk of fire. An 8,000-foot runway has been constructed on the ice.

Cooperation has been secured from the Air Force and the Danish government, which controls Greenland. Greenamyer and Hess--Ward stayed home--are trying to make the most of the short Greenland summer when temperatures grudgingly creep a few degrees above freezing.

If Greenamyer’s team succeeds in getting the Kee Bird operable, the plan is to fly it to Thule Air Base for more extensive repairs and then to a U.S. air base in Idaho or Montana.

If needed, “Lucky” Luedke, despite his years, is ready to do his part.

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“I’d like to be the flight engineer again and sit in the same seat as when we landed it,” he said. “I love that plane.”

On Frozen Ground

A B-29 called the Kee Bird crash-landed on a frozen lake 250 miles north of Thule, Greenland, on Feb. 21, 1947, while on a mission from Fairbanks, Alaska, to see if the Soviets were putting military bases above the Arctic Circle.


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