Airborne Awesomosity

All That For Nothing


On February 20, 1947 a Strategic Air Command B-29 took off from Ladd Field near Fairbanks, AK on a secret mission. That mission meant the Kee Bird was to fly north to the geographic north pole then return. With extended range tanks filling its empty bomb bays, it could stay aloft for 26 hours. The mission was expected to last 20 hours.

After reaching the north pole, Lt. Vern H. Arnett and his crew of 11 men began turning around. Sometime in the maneuvers they were to follow to get back to Alaska Lt. Arnett became disoriented in a storm. With only minutes of fuel left on board, they ditched the aircraft on a frozen lake. Fortunately, they were able to stay in radio communication. Unfortunately, they didn’t have a clue about where they were. For the next three days, rescue missions were launched looking for the stranded airmen. With the crew of the Kee Bird feeding the Air Force celestial information, their location was finally narrowed down to northwest Greenland. They were rescued, but the plane was left behind.

In 1994, Darryl Greenamyer and a team of aircraft restoration specialists located the Kee Bird and, with the Air Force surrendering possession, began the task of getting the relatively intact aircraft in a flyable condition. Their plan was to get it to Thule Air Force Base where they would continue the restoration work.

They didn’t make it that far.

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[Image Credit: Public Domain]

  • thomasmac

    I remember my dad showing this to me when I was kid and I wept at the end. I could never stand to watch it again. There is a ton of interesting reading into the back story of the guys and aircraft, not much left of it these days.

  • Will Campbell

    Kee Bird didn't sink to the bottom of the lake, its still on surface. The wings are still intact, the tail section appears to have moved. The brand new engines are still there, although there is speculation that the spark plugs were all pulled from them so they would be destroyed. The brand new props are obviously still there. Here are some recent(ish) pictures.

    Here is a good thread on the subject.

  • cruisintime

    Saw this on PBS years ago, generator in the back was not secured,tipped and spread fuel. Fate is the Hunter.

    • Felis_Concolor

      Don't forget the jerry can rigged into the fuel system; impatience was the biggest factor in the Kee Bird's demise.

  • Will Campbell

    More specifically, the APU was fine, the gas can they were using to gravity feed it was not secure. Apparently the fuel pump on the APU died so they rigged a gas can above the generator to feed it. The guy who was supposed to be watching it was overwhelmed by dust once the plane started moving so he moved into the next compartment to get dust mask. By the time he got back to the APU the fire was already more than a small fire extinguisher could handle.

    One of the guys tools were in there, lost all of them. The pilot had to cut himself out of the seat belt because the buckle wouldn't release. It was a sad affair. The APU had to be running as it provided the power for the, flaps and a few other auxiliary items so it couldn't be shut down till the plane was in the air.

    Oddly enough I have a 1/48 scale Kee Bird sitting on my coffee table as I type this. I couldn't believe I found most of the important decals to build it. Its HUGE, close to a 3 foot wingspan. It dwarfs the B24 and PBY I have of the same scale.

    • Felis_Concolor

      I learned the details long before most did; I was delivering flowers for a shop owned by a nice old lady whose son was part of the expedition to retrieve the bird. That week was especially somber after his return.

      It's heartbreaking to learn how much has been and will continue to be lost to stupid mistakes.

  • Polar aircraft recoveries have had mixed success. In the austral summer of 1987/1988, the US Antarctic Program attempted to recover an LC-130 Hercules that had crashed in December 1971. During their recovery attempt, they crashed and destroyed another LC-130 at the recovery site. They were able to return the first aircraft to service.

    At the end of the whole affair, USAP had spent one third of the cost of an LC-130 and two Navy airmen lost their lives, and the number of LC-130s in service was unchanged.



    To this day I think this episode (and NOVA in general) is one of the top 5 things I've ever seen on TV. And there was hardly a dick joke in it.

  • Will Campell

    I have to agree, things were rushed and people were impatient. Had they taken the time, the could have fixed the APU fuel pump and done it right. There is speculation that even if they had gotten it to fly and landed at Thule, the base commander wasn't going to let it leave in any way shape or form. That includes flying it back to the mainland or taking it apart and placing it on a ship.

    I still think it would be worth an expedition to salvage what is left. The trouble being the fact that the Dutch gov't likely isn't going to issue a permit to touch it. If they do, who ever does will have to clean the whole mess up, and from the sounds of it, there is a big mess up there.