Expeditioning: Spread Your Props and Fly!

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, May 1995

Expeditioning: Spread Your Props and Fly!

After 48 years in the Arctic, the Kee Bird readies for takeoff
By Carl Hoffman

After coming back empty-handed from his two previous missions to the Arctic, Darryl Greenamyer seems to have developed the proper respect for at least half of the struggle that awaits him during try number three. "I'm not too worried about the cold," says the 58-year-old record-holding aviator, "but let's face it, the logistics are a bitch."

Indeed, when he started his quest in the summer of 1993, Greenamyer had no inkling of the difficulty he'd face in trying to become the first person ever--albeit among a small group of buffs and collectors--to recover a wrecked World War II plane by flying it out of its resting place. But as he departs this month in hopes of bringing home the Kee Bird, an 85,000-pound, four-engine B-29 bomber that lies 950 miles north of the Arctic Circle in Greenland, where it belly-flopped 48 years ago after a North Pole reconnaissance mission, the remaining logistics may once again seem tame in comparison to the wrath of the Arctic.

If all goes according to plan, and assuming the Kee Bird is in the same shape they left it in a year ago, Greenamyer and his seven-man team will complete some remaining mechanical minutiae in "two or three days" and then fly the plane 270 miles south to the U.S. Air Force base in Thule. But the "plan" doesn't account for the brutal winds and subfreezing temperatures that thwarted last year's mission.

In their first trip to the Arctic, two years ago, Greenamyer and four colleagues flew a Vietnam-era Huey helicopter to the wreck site. They managed to jack up the plane, lower its landing gear, and even start one of its original engines but didn't have all the equipment they needed to finish the job. A year later they returned with four rebuilt B-29 engines, new tires, new props, a 10,000-pound bulldozer, and a 1962 deHaviland Caribou prop plane. The proj-ect seemed straightforward: The Caribou would shuttle supplies back and forth from Thule, they'd change an engine every 48 hours, and in two weeks Greenamyer would be zooming down a 3,000-foot runway graded by the bulldozer.

But without a deicing system, the Caribou was grounded whenever the sun didn't shine--which was nearly always. Two weeks turned into six as simple tasks like changing a tire took four men up to six hours in the bitter cold. Head mechanic Rick Kriege worked ceaselessly, taking no R and R in Thule. "Innovate," he would repeatedly yell to his crew, "you've got to innovate."

Eventually all the engines were replaced and the new tires, props, and rudder were mounted, but then conditions took a drastic turn for the worse. In late August a pair of blizzards struck back to back. Kriege, weakened by fatigue and exposure, mysteriously collapsed and remained in his sleeping bag. As soon as the winds subsided, Greenamyer and team deiced the Caribou with a broomstick and fled. Once in Thule, Kriege was airlifted to a hospital in Canada, where he died two weeks later from a swollen spleen and blood clots in his lungs.

Greenamyer admits that his lack of Arctic experience has been a problem, but no one denies that he has the perfect pedigree for the mission in other respects. A graduate of both the Air Force's Test Pilot School and the Navy's Top Gun School, in 1976 he set a still-standing jet speed record by flying 1,000 mph at an altitude of 30 feet. He also knows vintage aircraft, having earned a small fortune over the last decade by flying "unflyable" old planes out of military scrap yards and selling them to wealthy collectors.

In fact, as he returns this month with a trio of top-notch mechanics, the profit motive may be driving him as much as the chance to notch another aeronautical first. He should be able to recover at least twice the half-million dollars that he and partner Tom Hess will have sunk into the project. "That bird went down having flown only 150 hours, so it's like a rare piece of art," says Donald Sachs, an aviation heritage consultant for Boeing Aircraft. "I wouldn't even want to speculate on exactly what it's worth, but it'll be in the millions."

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