It’s May 21, 1995, and a team of salvagers have finished their work on the B-29 Superfortress named Kee Bird. Kee Bird had originally crashed in the Arctic wastes of northern Greenland back in 1947. Nearly 50 years on, though, and the stricken aircraft’s four engines begin to fire up yet again. But will the group be able to return the huge WWII plane to the skies?
Yet before we find out about what happened to Kee Bird on that spring day, let’s take a look at the wider history of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress. The plane’s story starts in 1939, when the U.S. Army Air Corps – the predecessor to the U.S. Air Force – put together a specification for a new long-range superbomber.
At this time, although the U.S. was not yet a participant in WWII, senior Air Corps officers certainly had an eye on what Nazi Germany was up to. The top brass wanted a plane, then, that had a strangely precise range of 2,667 miles. The aircraft, they decreed, should also have a top flying speed of 400 mph and be able to carry 20,000 pounds of bombs – a tall order indeed.
Nevertheless, four companies responded to the Air Corps brief – although it was Boeing that was ultimately given the go-ahead to produce three prototype aircraft. This process seems to have gone well, too, as in May 1941 the Air Corps ordered 14 test planes and 250 standard production models – with the latter figure increased to 500 in January 1942.
The Superfortress was, it’s worth remembering, a notably advanced aircraft for its day. Among its innovative features were a pressurized cabin, machine gun turrets controlled remotely by rudimentary computers and unorthodox double-wheeled tricycle landing gear. But, naturally, producing the bomber didn’t come cheap.
Indeed, over the course of WWII, some $3 billion was sunk into the design and production of the B-29 – making it the costliest piece of weaponry constructed during the conflict. By contrast, the Manhattan Project – which involved the design and building of the world’s first nuclear bomb – cost a mere $1.9 billion. And to put that sum into further perspective, $3 billion in 1945 was equivalent to nearly $42 billion today.
It didn’t help, either, that the Superfortress was a complicated beast to build. The planes were put together at four separate principal assembly facilities, in fact, with the number of sub-contractors involved running into the thousands. What’s more, an early test flight in 1943 produced a devastating result. The plane crashed and killed all 11 of the crew – as well as 20 unlucky souls in the Seattle meat-packing plant that was devastated by the accident. The incident also claimed the life of one firefighter.
But the B-29 nevertheless became a real warhorse for the U.S. Air Force during the Second World War. It certainly saw significant action in the Pacific, with its most famous missions represented by strikes against Japan in August 1945. Yes, Superfortresses were used to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and so hasten the end of WWII.
But let’s get back to the B-29 called Kee Bird – the airplane we mentioned at the beginning of our story. This particular plane was built between August and September 1945, and as a result, she never saw action during WWII.
In fact, Kee Bird was one of the last B-29s to come off the production line at the Boeing factory in Wichita, Kansas. And upon completion, the plane went to Nebraska’s Grand Island Army Airfield, where she languished for a time before she and 18 other Superfortresses were attached to the 46th Reconnaissance Squadron.
Then the aircraft – along with five others – was kitted out with specialist photographic equipment designed for surveillance work. So, having missed action in WWII, Kee Bird was now called upon to take part in the Cold War. Specifically, she would be used to help spy on the Soviet Union.
In June 1946 the 46th Reconnaissance Squadron, along with Kee Bird, was subsequently stationed at Ladd Field near Fairbanks, Alaska. This base was used to gather intelligence from the Soviet Union. But since the high-altitude Lockheed U2 – which could fly spy missions over the Russian interior – was not yet available at this time, such findings were only gleaned from exploring the U.S.S.R.’s borders.
The squadron had specifically been tasked to map parts of Greenland, improve polar navigation and undertake long-distance flights aimed at reconnaissance – including the gathering of photographic intelligence. These missions would also put the men and equipment of the 46th to the test in the harsh conditions of the Arctic and the North Pole.
As the Cold War grew increasingly fractious, Strategic Air Command had considered the viability of making attacks on Soviet targets by flying across the North Pole. This strategy was part of what became known as Project Nanook, and the intelligence that the 46th was tasked with collecting could contribute to the planning of such a mission.
In particular, the 46th was ordered to chart the northern limits of Greenland and search for any evidence of Soviet military activity in the remote Arctic region. And so on February 20, 1947, Kee Bird set off on a top-secret Cold War espionage mission. It would be the seventh such assignment that she embarked upon.
The aircraft was skippered that day by Lieutenant Vern H. Arnett, who was in command of a crew of 11. And by this point, missions such as the one that the men were launching had become something of a routine. As things would turn out, though, Kee Bird’s flight on that occasion was to be far from ordinary.
That day in February, Arnett and his men had orders to fly over the geographic North Pole. And after that, they would then turn around and fly back to Ladd Field. The mission certainly seemed achievable, too, not least because Kee Bird was loaded with enough fuel to stay in the air for around 26 hours. Before take-off, her bomb bays had, you see, been loaded with extra tanks.
Now although such reconnaissance missions were routinely flown in radio silence to avoid detection, a couple of messages did come in from Kee Bird during the early morning of February 21, 1947. What’s more, they provided an ominous detail: the crew, it seemed, were lost. According to the official report, the men were “over land but [they did] not know where.”
Then, as the morning continued, Kee Bird radioed in to explain that the plane had only enough fuel for four minutes of flight time. And as a result, the crew were going to make a crash landing on either ice or ground. However, while the Air Force sprang into action to respond, there was a big problem: nobody knew where Kee Bird had come down.
Nevertheless, a search and rescue mission was soon initiated, and aircraft at Ladd Field duly took to the air to help. Radio contact was eventually established with Kee Bird’s crew, too, who explained that they had indeed crash-landed on ice – and, miraculously, that no one had been hurt as a consequence. In a bid to help the searchers locate them, the men were also able to radio in position readings that they had made from star positions.
Then, at last, on the morning of February 22, one of the search planes, another B-29, spotted the crashed plane and her crew on the northwest of Greenland. And another aircraft subsequently passed over the site and dropped supplies to Kee Bird’s men.
Arnett and his fellow squadron members were then ordered to destroy various sensitive pieces of equipment. And nor would they be leaving Greenland in a hurry, as the B-29 ultimately turned tail and flew back to Ladd Field. But the question remained: how was the Air Force going to get the men off the Arctic ice?
Well, ultimately a plane was to attempt a landing on the frozen lake where Kee Bird and her crew were located. The aircraft in question was a Douglas C-54 Skymaster – a four-engined transport vehicle – and she was piloted by Lieutenant Bobbie J. Cavnar.
The reasoning was that since the ice on the lake was apparently strong enough to hold the weight of a B-29, it seemed likely that it could also support the smaller C-54. Given that the Skymaster was designed to be able to land in up to ten inches of snow, too, there was a good chance that the mission would succeed. And yet even so, Cavnar would have to eventually take off to complete the rescue.
So, on February 24, 1947 – three days after Kee Bird had crashed – Cavnar landed on the lake where Arnett and his men awaited rescue. The lieutenant and his buddies then got aboard the C-54, upon which Cavnar flew them to Thule in Greenland – some 220 miles from where Kee Bird had come down.
Before taking off, Arnett and his men had in addition carried out their order to destroy their sensitive equipment. This they did with the help of an axe, with the team also burning various highly secret documents. And the rescued men then caught up on some sleep on the flight to Thule, where they were served with what must have been a very welcome steak dinner upon arrival.
For this daring rescue, Cavnar was later awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross. That wasn’t all, either; along with his crew, the C-54 pilot was honored with a ticker-tape parade on the streets of New York and even an audience with President Harry Truman. What could, then, have been a fatal catastrophe for Arnett and his men turned out to have a happy ending.
For Arnett, though, the respite was brief. After February 1947’s historic crash and rescue, he was back behind the controls of another Superfortress that same December. And once more, he would be flying missions for the 46th Reconnaissance Squadron.
Now, however, Arnett was involved in yet another crash – this time while piloting a B-29 bizarrely dubbed The Clobbered Turkey. He and his crew of seven had taken off on a surveillance mission on December 23. Yet as the plane was flying over Alaska, she crashed into the slopes of Mount Hot Springs. Incredibly, Arnett and the crew all survived, although three men were injured.
But then, after days without rescue, Arnett decided that he and another crew member should hike into the wilderness in search of help. Tragically, however, both men died in this attempt. Fatalities also occurred when three other men perished while trying to parachute in to bring aid. And another plane would crash in a putative rescue attempt, with the result being that six more men were stranded.
However, by December 31 – thanks mainly to the help of both local pilots and dog sled owners with intimate knowledge of the terrain – all of the surviving men had been rescued. That effort sadly came too late for Arnett, though, of course.
Yet what of Kee Bird herself in the middle of all of this? Well, although all of her crew had been successfully rescued, the plane was left lying on the frozen lake – presumably to slowly rust away to nothing. But then, finally, a man by the name of Darryl Greenamyer stepped in.
Greenamyer had previously been a pilot with the U.S. Air Force Reserve and had gone on to become a test pilot. He was a keen competitor and a six-time winner of the National Air Races, too. And the flying daredevil didn’t believe that Kee Bird should just be left to rot on a lake in Greenland.
Conveniently for Greenamyer, the U.S. Air Force had also renounced any claim to ownership of the plane. So, anybody who wanted Kee Bird could have her. And yet Greenamyer didn’t just want to possess the aircraft. He believed that he could fly out to the lake in remotest Greenland, restore Kee Bird to working order and then fly her back to civilization.
Greenamyer was clearly a determined man, too. To help in his quest to retrieve the plane, he formed an outfit called the Kee Bird Limited Liability Company. And in 1994, at the head of a team of mechanics and restorers, he flew out to Kee Bird’s lake in Greenland and started work on his seemingly crazy project.
From Thule Air Base, Greenamyer and his team ferried all the equipment and parts they needed aboard a 1962 de Havilland Caribou. And they delivered, among other things, four new engines, four replacement propellers and a bulldozer – the latter of which they’d need to make a runway for Kee Bird to take off from.
But despite making good progress, including fitting the new engines and propellers, Greenamyer and his crew couldn’t complete their work in 1994. And tragedy struck the effort as well. Rick Kriege, the project’s chief engineer, fell ill and had to be evacuated from the site; he was killed by a blood clot just two weeks later. Then the winter snow began to close in, prompting Greenamyer to decide to temporarily abandon the mission.
But, seemingly undeterred, Greenamyer was back again in the summer of 1995. And this time the team finished the job of restoring Kee Bird. Furthermore, after a considerable amount of tweaking and some worryingly black smoke clouds, they eventually got the engines going too.
All Greenamyer’s group had to do now, then, was dig the plane out of the snow and ice and ready her for take-off from their makeshift runway. Then, after the team had managed to start the engines running, Kee Bird seemed ready to take to the air. But then smoke started to appear from the back of the plane. The fire – caused by a leaky fuel tank – quickly caught, too. And the result proved catastrophic for both Kee Bird and those who had worked on her.
So, while Greenamyer and his buddies all escaped the blaze, they nevertheless experienced the likely devastating vision of their work literally going up in smoke before their eyes. Greenamyer passed away in 2018 at the age of 82, having never seen his dream of flying Kee Bird realized. And the plane herself? Well, the last known sighting of her dates from 2014, when some mineral exploration workers visited the site and uploaded a video of the wreckage to Vimeo.