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Book fuels fascination with airplane wrecks

Air Transportation IndustryPetroleum Industry

I have always been fascinated with shipwrecks, the granddaddy being the Titanic, followed by the Andrea Doria, and the nether world where they dwell, tragic relics frozen in time. Wrecked airplanes also do it for me.

I remember looking at an issue of Life magazine around 1960 and being transfixed by the haunting color images of the Lady Be Good, a B-24 Liberator bomber that had overflown its base in Italy while returning from a 1943 mission and then crash-landed in the Libyan desert.

Its crew members, who had bailed out, attempted to cross the desert and perished in the process, leaving behind a diary that chronicled their attempt to reach safety.

No one had seen the nearly intact bomber since the crash until a British oil exploration crew chanced upon it in 1958.

I still recall the eerie photos of the flag-covered remains of its crew lying in the brown desert sand where they had died, and the discovery by the explorers that a thermos of drinkable coffee and water was found in the plane, along with a working radio and loaded functioning machine guns.

I once went hunting some years back for a downed Piper Cub aircraft on Mount Greylock in northwest Massachusetts with an old newspaper colleague, Ernest F. Imhoff, a fellow disasterholic and a veteran hiker and climber, who had grown up in nearby Williamstown, Mass., and recalled news stories of the crash during the 1940s.

A few years later, we trudged unsuccessfully through the dense forests of New Hampshire near Mount Moosilauke on a brilliant sun-splashed fall afternoon in a vain attempt to find another missing airplane, a Learjet.

The plane had simply vanished, almost "Twilight Zone"-like, during a 1996 Christmas Eve snowstorm, at what should have been the conclusion of a routine flight from Bridgeport, Conn., to West Lebanon, N.H.

The plane was eventually found in 1999, deep in the woods of Dorchester, N.H., with the bodies of its two pilots still strapped in their seats, 20 miles from its intended landing.

On another occasion, Imhoff took me and my son on a hike to Elephant Mountain near Moosehead Lake in Maine on a dark and humid summer day to visit the wreckage of a B-52 Stratofortress whose tail fell off during a January 1963 flight. The crash killed seven of its nine crewmen.

It was a profoundly creepy place. The debris field was startling, with pieces everywhere, even after the passage of nearly 40 years. It was covered with leaves, and trees have grown up replacing those that were sheared as the giant plane plowed to its final resting place.

Part of the intact cockpit can be entered. One can only speculate what transpired there in the final moments as its desperate pilot tried to save his plane and crew. The retractable landing gear has an enormous, still-inflated tire attached.

For those who are interested in such explorations, armchair or otherwise, check the recently published "Hidden Warbirds" by Nicholas A. Veronico, a California aviation historian and writer, about locating, recovering and restoring World War II's missing airplanes.

"They're out there … you just need to know where to look," advises Veronico in the book's introduction. "Missing fighters with names like Lightning and Warhawk; bombers large and small — Havoc, Marauder, Flying Fortress, and Liberator; and Navy carrier planes — Hellcats, Wildcats, and Dauntless; all are scattered across the former battlegrounds of World War II."

He writes, "Friends and foes alike, the hands of fate have also hidden Hurricanes and Spitfires, Stukas and Zeros, and dozens of other types. They sit in humid swamps and jungles, on sweltering desert hardscapes, submerged under water, or buried under tons of ice."

Veronico also points out that there are obstacles to such recovery efforts, which include exposure to insects, snakes, "hostile natives, and poor and primitive living conditions," he writes.

The wrecks can be found not only in exotic climes but also nearby. They are in "lakes, hidden in trees, in hangars, garages, and sitting on abandoned airfields. They are out there," he writes.

Recovery is just the beginning, which can be staggeringly difficult, he writes, and then comes restoration, which requires plenty of financial resources. Enthusiasm alone won't carry the day.

"Warbirds" is lavishly illustrated with color photos — many before and after — which I found hypnotic.

That some of these hulks and wrecks could be reassembled and brought back to life and flown again even after the passage of more than 60 years is simply incredible.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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