The story of the B-29 Kee Bird is one of the saddest tragedies in all of aviation. The aircraft was found in perfect condition 50 years after it crash landed in Greenland. A team visited the site and tried to fly the aircraft out, but one small oversight resulted in a fire that engulfed and destroyed the aircraft before it could take flight again.
The team had work in the frozen arctic conditions preparing the aircraft, replacing the engines, tyres and propellers without any heavy duty equipment aside from a bulldozer.
The loss of the aircraft was a major blow to the warbird community, and continues to stir emotion whenever it is discussed.
Continue with caution: what follows may make you cry!
- The B-29
- Final Flight of the ‘Kee Bird’
- Rediscovery And Restoration Attempts
- Tragedy of the Kee Bird
- Cause and Aftermath
The B-29 Superfortress was developed during the World War II and at the time was one of the greatest technological advances in human history. It was created to fill an urgent need for a high-altitude, long-range bomber that could travel vast distances.
The B-29 integrated state-of-the-art technological advancements and set new standards in aerospace engineering.
Its range was a game-changer in the Pacific War, enabling direct strikes on the Japanese home islands from distant bases.
However, as revolutionary as the B-29 was, it wasn’t without its challenges. The complexity of its design led to frequent mechanical issues. Especially in its early deployments, engine fires were a notable concern.
Yet, despite these initial teething problems, the B-29 played a pivotal role in accelerating the end of the Second World War.
Final Flight of the ‘Kee Bird’
On February 20, 1947, the ‘Kee Bird’, under the command of Lt. Vern H. Arnett, embarked on a secret Cold War reconnaissance mission from Ladd Field airbase in Fairbanks, Alaska. It was part of a larger effort by the US to monitor potential Soviet activities and establish a surveillance presence in the polar regions.
But the Arctic’s vast expanse and challenging atmospheric conditions often played tricks on navigators, making it a treacherous route for aviators.
The Kee Bird was originally built in 1945, but after the war it was converted into an F-13 reconnaissance aircraft by fitting extended-range fuel tanks and five cameras.
This B-29 had enough fuel for 26 hours of flying and carried around two weeks of supplies for the crew.
On this mission, the Kee Bird was tasked with flying to the North Pole from Ladd Field, and then returning to base. These types of missions were flown under radio silence to maintain secrecy.
As the ‘Kee Bird’ flew over the icy landscape and reached the North Pole, a series of unfortunate events began to unravel. The crew hit a storm and became disoriented, loosing their position amidst poor weather and confusing ground conditions.
The Kee Bird’s fuel eventually ran out, forcing Lt. Arnett to make a landing on an ice-covered lake in northern Greenland. The touchdown was executed with precision, saving the lives of the crew onboard. The plane, though stranded, remained largely intact.
In the vast, cold emptiness, miles from civilization, the crew hunkered down and awaited rescue. The US launched a number of aircraft to hunt down the Kee Bird over the next few days.
The Kee Bird’s crew were not passive in this rescue though, as they assisted the search using the aircraft’s radio equipment. They also had to destroy some of their B-29’s sensitive components, like its radar and identifier.
They were first spotted by B-29 “Boeing’s Boner” participating in the search on February 21, which marked the aircraft’s position and dropped the crew additional supplies.
A rescue mission was planned that involved two C-54 transport aircraft fitted with JATO (jet-assisted take-off) systems to shorten their take-off distance. One would land and collect the crew, while another would remain in the air, making observations and assisting where necessary.
This occurred on February 24, with all crew being collected safely and inspected for injuries – of which there were none. The C-54 took off an hour later with the assistance of the JATO rockets and landed in Thule airbase in southern Greenland.
The rescued crew were then placed on another flight that evening that took them to the mainland US.
The Kee Bird was left as it was in Greenland, sat on top of a shallow, frozen lake and written off from the Air Force’s records.
Rediscovery And Restoration Attempts
The following may result in tears. You have been warned.
The Kee Bird remained in northern Greenland, unseen by humans for decades, left to the freezing conditions of the artic. It wasn’t until 1985 that the plane was spotted by a British pilot, who saw that the bomber was still in fantastic condition.
At the time only the B-29 “FiFi” was flying, so naturally museums and collectors were interested in the opportunity to obtain the Kee Bird. Getting it out was the problem.
In the early 1990s wreck-recovery expert Gary Larkins made a trip to the aircraft along with a crew to inspect its condition. Incredibly, the aircraft was found to be in essentially pristine condition, having been preserved by the freezing temperatures of the arctic.
Some components had suffered damage, such as the engines’ propellers that were bent from prop strikes, but in general the aircraft was in exceptionally good condition.
The B-29’s number one engine was even fired up!
Gary Larkins then sold the rights to the site to Darryl Greenamyer, former SR-71 test pilot and famed Reno air racer.
A recovery attempt was inevitable, with most assuming the aircraft would be broken up into smaller sections and transported out of Greenland. However the aircraft’s condition was so remarkably good that Greenamyer believed that, with some work, he could fly the Kee Bird out.
He committed himself to one of the most ambitious aircraft restoration endeavors all time. The plan was to get the plane into airworthy-enough shape at its resting place to fly it to Thule Air Force Base in southern Greenland.
From here, more extensive repairs would take place, before the aircraft would be flown to Idaho or Montana. Once in the US, it would be sold to a museum or private collector.
In 1994, armed with a vision, Greenamayer assembled a team of aviation enthusiasts and experts to embark on this daring mission. Traveling to Greenland was no small feat. The remoteness of the location, combined with the unpredictable Arctic weather, posed significant logistical challenges on its own.
There was consideration to use the original engines, but due to their age and having suffered prop strikes it was decided to use four remanufactured engines and propellers instead.
These were painstakingly swapped out on the frozen lake, all the while the crew were battered by winds and freezing temperatures. The Kee Bird was jacked up off the ground so its undercarriage could be lowered and inspected.
The rubber tyres had degraded beyond use, so they were replaced. Some control surfaces, including the rudder, had to be reconditioned. The new engines were fitted, as were the 16-foot propellers – all done with rather basic hand tools.
Initially it was hoped that the task would take four weeks, but due to terrible weather and working conditions this increased to eight.
Over this time, the much respected chief engineer Rick Kriege fell ill, but continued to help where he could. When winter started to set in the work was mostly complete, but Greenamayer decided to cover up the Kee Bird and return the following summer to fly the aircraft out as the weather had become unbearable.
However by this point Rick’s condition was critical, and he was immediately rushed to hospital after leaving the Kee Bird. He would sadly pass away two weeks later from a blood clot.
Tragedy of the Kee Bird
Greenamayer returned in 1995 with his team and immediately got back to work. This expedition would only take two weeks.
Snow and ice was cleared from the aircraft, and it was checked and prepared for its departure. A small bulldozer had out a primitive runway. The runway was now frozen and would theoretically support the Kee Bird, but it was covered in snow drifts and was thousands of feet shorter than a B-29’s ideal runway.
With Greenamayer at the helm all four engines were fired up. Full take-off power was needed to break the tyres free from the ice, but for the first time in 48 Kee Bird was moving under her own power.
Greenamayer taxied the big plane over to its landing strip where its take-off would begin, but it was at this moment, seconds before take off and potential success, that disaster struck.
Smoke began emanating from the aircraft’s fuselage – a fire had started near the tail! The crew on board tried to fight the flames with extinguishers but it was too late and they were forced to abandon the Kee Bird.
The recovery crew sat back and watched as months of brutal work and an incredibly rare and significant piece of history burned to the ground. Only the wings and tail remained.
Cause and Aftermath
There are a few different ideas of what exactly happened to cause the fire, but most agree it was related to the auxiliary power unit (APU). The APU provided power to the engines for start up, and was meant to be switched off once the main engines were running.
In the Kee Bird, the APU’s fuel supply was stored above it in a hastily made fuel tank suspended from the roof of the fuselage.
During the B-29’s taxi, the fuel tank was likely rocked from its mounting and spilled fuel onto the hot APU, starting the fire. Some of the crew claimed the APU had been switched off as required, while others claim that it was still running when the fire started.
The situation may have been made worse by Greenamayer’s taxiing, which was alarmingly fast for the aircraft over that terrain. Some have commented on how the aircraft should have been taxied slower, or pulled to the runway with a bulldozer they had on site.
However this story raises another question: would the Kee Bird have even flown at all?
This is impossible to know, but there is some concerns about whether the airframe itself was up to the task of flight after almost 50 years of sitting still. The Kee Bird would have taken off, but it is unclear whether it was fit for the journeys ahead.
In addition, others have mentioned that crew were lucky for how it did play out – if the APU fire happened in the air, it would have resulted in a tragic loss of life.
Should the crew have been more thorough? Should the aircraft have been disassembled and transported back to the US? Should it have been left alone entirely? We can’t answer these questions, but they are food for thought.
After the tragic fire consumed the Kee Bird, the aircraft’s charred remains were left on the frozen lake in Greenland, marking the final resting place for this storied B-29 to which they still remain today.
The effort and resources invested in trying to bring the plane back to life were considerable, and the sudden loss was a devastating blow to Darryl Greenamayer and his team.
This saga is, in our opinion, potentially the most heartbreaking stories in all of aviation. A perfectly preserved historic artifact, lost just seconds before victory.
The journey was recorded in a two-part documentary which can found online – be warned though, it may just make you cry.