B-29 Frozen for 50 years
by Wayland Mayo
It happened seemingly overnight. Suddenly there were no B-29s, P-38s, B-17s, or any of the W.W.II masterpieces. The following story shows just how far we will go to recover any of these aircraft, regardless of where they are or what condition they are in. This is a story of unbelievable determination, desire, ingenuity, and unbearable heartbreak. The great respect and love we have of the B-29 is obvious. I have never watched the tape of this recovery without tears in my eyes. The startling ending leaves us with that empty feeling, it will definitely strain your emotions.
B-29, FROZEN FOR 50 YEARS
There are only a handful of B-29s left, out of over 4,000. Somehow nobody realized it until it was too late. At one time the Arizona desert was covered with B-29s, some flown in and in good condition. They were all scrapped. There is one named DOC being rebuilt now and is expected to fly. What a sight that will be. As far as I know the only one flying now is FIFI, belonging to the Confederate Air Force.
Some 50 years ago a B-29 named the KEE BIRD was flying on a secret mission over Greenland, 250 miles north of Thule. It became lost and out of fuel crash landed with minimum structural damage. On the second day a plane flew over the crew and they knew they would be rescued. The next day a plane landed and picked up the very fortunate crew. They were lucky. The plane went down inside the Arctic Circle where the climate is harsh, the sun never sets in summer, and the weather can change hourly from sunny to gale force winds. Certainly it is one of the most isolated places on earth. The Air Force released ownership of the Kee Bird making it available to anyone with the capability of flying it out. If recovered the Kee Bird would be a unique addition to aviation history. The plane sat on the edge of the frozen lake for 50 years, enduring weather conditions unlike any place in the world.
Now comes Darryl Greenamyer. He flew the U-2, and was a test pilot for the SR-71. In the 70s he built an F-104 Starfighter from scrap parts and set low altitude speed records which still stand. If anyone could pull off recovering the Kee Bird it would be Darryl Greenamyer. It would be an arduous task requiring unprecedented determination. They needed a supply plane large enough to carry a bulldozer, four new R-3350 radial engines, propellers, tires, and tons of supplies, tools, and a multitude of aircraft parts. Darryl decided the best plane for the job would be a 1962 twin engine Caribou, a rugged aircraft good for short field operations. He also needed a work crew of expert mechanics. Rick Kriege would be the chief engineer having worked with Darryl for seven years. He also needed a tool maker and machinist. The work crew was assembled, engines and parts flown in to Thule. Roger Von Grote, a retired airline pilot and distant relative to Manfred Von Richthofen, would fly the Caribou. It was mid July and they were ready to go. This was to be a risky effort, a journey into the unknown. They left Thule in the Caribou, flew to the Kee Bird location and landed on the mushy turf. They set up camp and work finally began. 50 years of the worst weather in the world had pretty well beat up the Kee Bird. Not only were repairs to the Kee Bird needed, but the caribou presented problems. When it landed the tires dug into the soft ground and were pulled off the rims. It took hours to dig it out, and they had no means of inflating the tires. Rick came up with a questionable solution. They would use propane gas from the camp stove to inflate them. If the wheels became too hot they would explode.
The Caribou returned to Thule to pick up the bulldozer. The plane was overloaded but finally made it back to the work site. On landing the flaps failed and it once again dug deep into the ground. The bulldozer was unloaded and pulled the Caribou out. After hours of work Rick had the flaps repaired. The bulldozer pulled the Kee Bird to more solid ground and work was begun. The undercarriage was severely damaged, with the bomb bay doors completely demolished. There was some damage to the flaps. The old tires were rayon so new nylon tires were brought in. It was almost impossible to break the old tires off the rims, so the blade of the bulldozer was used, lowering it on the tire and forcing it to separate from the rim. The huge rudder and elevators had to be removed and recovered. The rudder required new wiring and some hand made parts, was soon reinstalled and made operational. Darryl wanted the project finished in a month. Two weeks had passed and not one new engine from Thule. Finally The Caribou returned with a new engine. Rick and crew were busy removing the old engines. Before installing the new engines many parts needed to be removed from the old ones and installed on the new.
B-29 Kee Bird in the
process of being reborn.
Doing this work in a warm hangar is difficult enough, in their environment it became a real task. Rick was now working endlessly on the Kee Bird when advised the Caribou again needed maintenance. The Caribou took off for its third flight to Thule, circled the area , and returned. The fire indicator light was on. The light was faulty. Rick now had to take more of his valuable time to fix it.
Weather is now the main concern, a month has passed and it is now the second week in August. Ominous clouds are all around. The wind is increasing. Rick continues the never ending work even in the rain. Darryl is desperate to keep the shuttle flights going as weather is coming on fast. The work is physically demanding. The bomb bay doors now work. Wheel bearings, brakes, and the entire hydraulic system required maintenance. Rick appeared exhausted and showed strain from the constant hard work. The massive rudder and elevators now work. The huge props are sixteen feet across and each weighs almost a ton. They too are finally installed. It is now time to start an engine. It refuses to start. After Rick makes an adjustment to the carburetor it finally starts and runs, music to their ears. Time is running out. The runway is not ready. It is August 22 and winter is rushing in. All four engines are now running, a magnificent sight. Rick rechecked everything and fixed the many oil leaks. The Caribou left for Thule to get gas for the Kee Bird. Rick suddenly became ill and was working with great pain. He finally collapsed, the end of his working on the Kee Bird. The Caribou returned from Thule with a very serious problem in the right engine. An exhaust valve was stuck and a new cylinder was needed. The problems were mounting fast.
Winter hit with all its fury, gale force winds and freezing rain. If they dont get out now they never will. Heavy snow is settling on the camp and visibility is poor. The previous two months has taken its toll on everyone. Now everybody is working on the Caribou. It is their lifeline, the only way out. The engine has a serious oil leak and the plane is covered with ice. It is a flying death trap. With a snow covered makeshift runway and Rick very sick they all climb into the Caribou and leave. On the way back to Thule the Caribou lost the right engine and struggled back on one. They made it, and Rick was loaded into an ambulance and taken to a hospital in Canada. He died from internal bleeding and a blood clot. He had literally worked himself to death.
Darryl understandably was visibly upset, but he had no intentions of quitting. Nine months later the Caribou was still out of service. The crew returned to the Kee Bird in an airplane equipped with Skis. Darryl had hired some new competent crew members. The temperature never got above 24 degrees making the work most difficult. Darryl figured in two weeks they could check everything out and get the Kee Bird in the air. All the oil leaks were fixed, all engines were running good. The instruments were all reading O.K. Darryl figured it was now or never. The unfinished runway was covered with heavy snowdrifts, so Darryl decided to take off across the frozen lake. The flight engineer reported oil pressure O.K. Darryl had installed a new Satellite Navigational System. He was ready to go. Maximum power was applied to break the Kee Bird loose from the snow embankments. Darryl made a circle positioning the plane at the beginning of the take off point. Just as he is about to apply full power for take off thick black smoke pours out the cockpit window and immediately the plane is totally engulfed in flames. Apparently a fuel tank broke loose and dumped gas on the APU which was running. The crew was fortunate to get out alive, in seconds the Kee Bird was consumed by fire. The years of planning, hard work by so many, Rick gave his life, and they were so close. The Kee Bird was ready to fly, with success only seconds away. All they could do was sit there and watch their beloved project burn to the ground.
When summer rolled around the remains of the Kee Bird along with the four new engines sank to the bottom of the lake, there to remain forever.
You can purchase the tape capturing these events as they happened from Amazon.Com. Listed as B-29, Frozen in Time. It is a must see.