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.