Since the release of Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air in 1997, a torrent of books has been published about people who do crazy things in cold places. Hunting Warbirds is such a book, with one difference: The people it describes are after more than mere death-skirting adventure. They're after treasure in the form of crashed World War II airplanes, and journey to the bitter edges of the earth to salvage them. It is a ripping story, and a fascinating introduction to an unlikely obsession.
There used to be hundreds of thousands of these warbirds, of course. Planes like the P-38 Lightning, P-51 Mus-tang and B-17 Flying Fortress rolled off the wartime assembly lines in prodigious numbers. But when the fighting stopped, the suddenly obsolete birds were dumped by the military off cliffs and aircraft carriers, poured into landfills, sold for scrap or used for target practice. Today, there are more people who have summited Mt. Everest than own all the B-29s, B-17s and B-25s combined. The best -- in fact, the only -- way to get more is to salvage planes that disappeared half a century ago.
The backbone of Hunting Warbirds is the story of the Kee Bird, a B-29 Superfortress that belly-landed along-side a frozen lake in northern Greenland in 1947. It sat virtually untouched in that arctic desert until 1993, when a small group of salvagers led by Gary Larkins and Darryl Greenamyer went there to try and reclaim it. To their joy, the plane was eerily well-preserved, freeze-dried without a flake of peeling paint or a spot of corrosion. When they jacked it up and cranked down the landing gear, the tires were still full of air. Most astounding of all, a little coaxing got one of the engines to cough,jerk and roar to life. Larkins and Greenamyer decided not just to salvage the Kee Bird but to fly it home.
Hoffman recounts the Kee Bird's amazing rehabilitation from frozen relic to flying machine. Greenamyer and his men returned to the site in the summer of 1994, equipped with four working B-29 engines, four sets of Hamilton-Standard propellers, a John Deere bulldozer, a small crane and 9,000 gallons of 1940s high-lead, 130-octane aviation fuel. What they were attempting would be difficult in a warm hanger, but in the rain, snow and screaming wind of a northern Greenland summer, 1,147 miles above the Arctic Circle, it was murder. The task at hand was so enormous and emotionally charged that the author himself quickly discarded his journalistic detachment and threw himself into the work, as did an entire crew from the television show Nova.
A portion of Hunting Warbirds is dedicated to a few less ambitious salvage missions, and to meeting the color-ful fanatics at the center of the warbird craze. Foremost among them is Walter Soplota, an eccentric collector who reigns over a sprawling graveyard of dismembered parts -- fuselages, engines, gun sights and "wings piled like cord-wood" -- and a number of complete planes, including a postwar B-36 Peacemaker, the largest bomber ever made. But as interesting as Soplota and the other characters are, the Kee Bird is the real reason to pick up this book. Just don't get too attached to her. She's a heartbreaker.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
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.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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 Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
A Washington, DC freelance journalist recounts the adventures of others like himself bitten by the "warbird bug" who seek to salvage highly collectible icons like the B-29 Superfortress, which was located on Greenland in 1947. Includes photos of the crashed and recovery planes and their crews. Lacks an index. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Read an Excerpt
In 1965, two decades after Hiroshima, the air battles of World War II came alive for me in an attic aerie in Newport, Rhode Island. Flopping onto a blue iron bed whose mattress felt as sloped and bumpy as a grassy hillside, I watched a P-38 Lightning race through a sky thick with antiaircraft flak. Above it was a formation of olive-drab B-17 Flying Fortresses, bristling with .50-caliber machine guns pointing from turrets on the nose and fuselage. Behind my head,
water-stained but still vivid, big-headed caricatures of Mussolini,
Hitler, and Hirohito plummeted to the ground in bumper-car-sized Messerschmitts and Zeros.
I was five and this was my father's childhood room. He had been twelve years old when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941
and he had papered nearly every square inch of the sloping attic walls with poster-sized centerfolds of Lightnings and Hellcats and Flying Fortresses (and, invisible until you closed the bedroom door,
a wall of beckoning Varga girls, their legs and breasts impossibly long and high). Now the room was mine for two whole weeks.
Every summer my parents and my sister and I climbed into our 1962
Ford Falcon station wagon and drove from Washington, D.C., to Newport. It was a long day's drive, made longer still by the ferry between Jamestown and Newport. Washington was hot and muggy,
Newport cool and foggy, and the minute we finally arrived at the home of my grandparents, I raced up three flights of stairs and flopped down onto that bed like the proud new owner I was; that year, for the first time, I was old enough to stay in the attic of the big Victorian house all by myself. Every summer for many years there-after I repeated the arrival ritual, dashing up to the "airplane room,"
listening to the foghorn wail, breathing in the musty smell of the mattress, and discovering a Corsair or Hellcat that I hadn't noticed before.
In Newport, partly because my father had grown up there during the war and his house and bedroom were virtually unchanged from those years, and partly because even in the 1960s elements of the Atlantic Fleet were still based in Newport, World War II seemed part of the town's fabric. At home, in Washington, the war was ancient history. But in Newport nearly every building and street offered a romantic World War II memory. My dad had scouted the skies for enemy airplanes from the belfry of the chapel at Saint George's School (one day rooting around in a closet I found his airplane identification book); he also helped out at the nightclub owned by his parents, the Ideal Cafe, a favorite Navy hangout (the showgirls bunked across the hall from my dad's airplane room), and closed the black shades every evening to keep Newport's lighted glow from reaching German U-boats lurking offshore.
Throughout my childhood, my father brought home plastic airplane models for me to build. In a gluey mess, I stuck together a P-38, a twin-boomed fighter-interceptor that the Japanese called
"the fork tailed devil." "There was almost no plane faster," said my dad, whose childhood dream of being an aeronautical engineer was dashed by his inability to master basic algebra. I built a PBY Catalina, a flying boat with big observation blisters, whose wings sported retractable sponsons and a pair of torpedoes. And I loved my B-29 Superfortress, with its tail gun, rotating machine-gun turrets,
and all-glass nose. In the battles on my bedroom floor, the planes wreaked havoc, the Catalina rescued downed aviators, and the Superfortress earned its distinction as the highest-flying, fastest,
and deadliest bomber of its time. One year I built a more modern B-52 Stratofortress, but I never loved the airplane. All sleek swept-wing jet with no bristling machine guns, no turrets, no props, and certainly no sense of heritage, it just wasn't the same.
The warbirds of the airplane room had saved the world from the crazed caricatures leering over my bed and had been romanticized in countless dramas of the fifties and sixties, from the B-17s flown by Gregory Peck in Twelve O'Clock High to the SBD Dauntlesses and Corsairs of McHale's Navy. The B-52? It didn't even have any propellers!
And it was sending rolling thunder over the rice paddies of Vietnam, a faraway place from which my parents wanted us out.
The classic warbirds weren't just old airplanes, they were touchstones to a glory that even a kid could recognize.
When I returned for a visit twenty years later, the models were long gone, victims of maternal housecleaning and an adolescent frenzy of fireworks experimentation (the B-52 was the first to blow).
Gone also were the posters in the airplane room. "We finally fixed up that old room," my grandmother said the summer I graduated from college, and I rushed upstairs two at a time to find the blue bed painted glossy white, the 1940s museum of airplane centerfolds and Vargas girls vanished, the white walls sporting a pair of framed America's Cup posters. My grandmother beamed, but I was crushed. It was, I couldn't help feeling, the final blow to childhood.
It was time to grow up and move on.