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The story of B-29 “KEE BIRD” FROZEN FOR 50 YEARS

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There are only a handful of B-29’s 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-29’s, 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.

The Kee Bird right after it’s emergency landing

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 70’s 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.

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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.

The Kee-Bird after it burned down.

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 it’s 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.

Read the rest of the story and it’s sad ending on B-29’s over Korea

Watch the documentary “Frozen in Time”:

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