When Carl Hoffman was a child, he loved to go up into the slant-ceilinged attic of his grandparents’ house in Newport, R.I. “I’d blast in the front door and run right upstairs,” he recalls. “The attic was unchanged from when my dad was a boy. Every square inch was covered in World War II airplane-magazine foldoutsB-24s, B-29s.”
During his adolescence, Hoffman’s enthusiasm for military aviation waned; he even used firecrackers to explode many of the airplane models he had once treasured. But his interest was renewed dramatically in 1994, when he was visiting an Air Force base above the Arctic Circle in Thule, Greenland, to report a story for Air & Space magazine. Everyone he met told him about the Kee Bird, an American B-29 plane that had been sitting on the ice a couple of hundred miles away ever since its crew had gotten lost and ditched it there in 1947. The previous summer, Hoffman’s sources said, a party of American aviation aficionados had cased the crash site to see whether the plane could be restored and flown out.
Hoffman, now 40, was used to spots as exotic as Greenland. From riding the Trans-Siberian railway to sailing down the Nile, Hoffman had put in more than a decade as a freelance writer specializing in adventure topics. So when he was given the opportunity to fly over the crash site, the native Washingtonian and second-generation journalist jumped at the chance.
“I really imagined some desiccated wing poking through the snow,” he recalls. “It was in Aprilthat’s still winter in Greenlandso it was nothing but white, pure, stark landscape, without a single tree or bush. At first, we had trouble finding it, but then we swept into a bowl and there it was, gleaming in the afternoon sun. We swooped over it a few times, and it appeared to be in perfect condition. It was a very eerie sight.”
Thus began Hoffman’s six-year adventure chronicling the efforts of aviation mavens to recover old planesstories he recounts in Hunting Warbirds: The Obsessive Quest for the Lost Aircraft of World War II. Hoffman spent parts of 1994 and 1995 at the Kee Bird site and another 28 days aboard a 175-foot tugboat off the coast of Greenland, looking for another vintage plane that had sunk into the sea.
The Kee Bird was such a hot commodity because, after the war ended, B-29s were deemed obsolete, and most were destroyed or sold for scrap; only one is still flying, and only a handful more are in museums. The plane is also historically significant for its role in World War IIboth atomic bombs dropped on Japan were released by B-29sand because it was one of the last “analog” planes, controlled by pulley-and-lever systems instead of by advanced avionics.
Because the Kee Bird had flown for only 200 hours before it crashed, experts thought it conceivable that, with repairs, the craft could be flown outthe only economical way to move it from its resting place. But the salvage efforts faced dramatic technical problems (with a result that Hoffman, in an interview, asks not to be published, so as not to ruin the story’s ending for readers), and conditions in the Kee Bird camp were grim, with severe blizzards, insufficient heaters, unappetizing food, and surly companions.
In the end, Hoffman says, hubris turned out to be the biggest obstacle. “On the reconnaissance mission in 1993, they had been there for four days, and the sun never set, and they never saw a cloud,” Hoffman says. “It was 50 degrees and very dry. I think it had given them a false sense of security.” Worse, the salvagers lacked a well-tested battle plan. “It was a whole new enterprise,” Hoffman says. “No one had ever flown a bomber off the ice before. They were making it up as they went along.” Louis Jacobson