An attempt by Southern California aviation buffs to retrieve a B-29 lying in the arctic wastes of Greenland since 1947 has ended in failure after the plane was destroyed by a flash fire just before takeoff.
The effort to restore and return the Kee-Bird, which crashed after running out of gas during a Cold War spy mission, had captured the imagination of the nation's aviation community.
The B-29 Superfortress was the most technologically advanced and militarily fearsome plane of World War II and is widely credited with hastening the Allied victory over Japan. Only one of the 4,000 planes is still flyable. The Kee-Bird would have been the second.
Ascher Ward, a Van Nuys airplane restoration expert, said a fire Sunday in an auxiliary power unit in the plane's tail raced through the plane just as his partners in the venture were about to fly it to Thule Air Force Base about 250 miles away.
"It just burned right down to the ground," Ward said. "It's unbelievable, it's such a disaster. A fire in an [auxiliary power unit] is just something you never expect. I'll bet they checked everything else except that."
The auxiliary power unit is a four-cylinder motor that helps start the main generator of the plane, which had a wingspan of 141 feet and a length of 99 feet. The eight-man restoration crew had converted the fuel system to injection to lessen the risk of fire, which had always been a problem with B-29s.
Ward estimated that the three-year restoration effort cost $1 million. His partners in the effort, Orange County trucking company owner Tom Hess and retired Lockheed test pilot Darryl Greenamyer, both of whom live in Rancho Santa Fe, had returned to the crash site last week to complete the final work on the engine, instrumentation and support systems.
No one was seriously injured in the fire, said Ward and a spokesman for the U.S. Air Force, which had provided logistic support for the retrieval effort.
Last summer, Hess and Greenamyer had been forced by bad weather and the illness of a key crew member to leave the Kee-Bird in Greenland for another winter. The plan had been to fly the plane to Thule for final repairs and then on to an Air Force base in Idaho or Montana before flying it to the Reno National Championship Air Races in September for its official debut.
"It's a tremendous loss," said Wayman Dunlap, editor of the Oceanside-based Pacific Flyer Aviation News. "Especially for the war-bird community, it's a big blow to lose an icon like this. A lot of people are going to be very upset."
Several buyers had shown interest in buying the Kee-Bird for a museum or private collection, Ward said. The only B-29 still being flown, named Fifi, is owned by the Confederate Air Force, a Texas-based group devoted to preserving classic aircraft.
The B-29, manufactured primarily by Boeing, was built to bomb the Japanese into submission. The firebombing of Tokyo was done by B-29s. The Enola Gay, which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, and the Bockscar, which dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki, were B-29s.
The Kee-Bird was built near the end of World War II and was part of a reconnaissance squadron based at Ladd Air Base in Fairbanks, Alaska. Named for a mythical wingless bird that subsists solely on glacier worms, the Kee-Bird was assigned to look for signs that the Soviet Union was engaging in a military buildup north of the Arctic Circle.
On Feb. 21, 1947, the Kee-Bird became lost in bad weather and was forced to crash-land on a frozen lake. In a daring rescue effort that brought kudos from President Harry S. Truman, the plane's crew was rescued three days later but the plane was left behind.
It was spotted in 1985 by a British pilot, who reported that it had been preserved by the region's brutal cold. That sighting captured the interest of Ward and his partners.