The Frozen-Solid Ballad of the Kee Bird
On February 21st 1947 United States Army Air Force Boeing B-29-95-BW Superfortress, 45-21768, named the Kee Bird, ran out of fuel due to a navigational error and was forced to land on a small frozen lake in a remote area of northern Greenland. The Kee Bird was a B-29 modified to the F-13 reconnaissance configuration and was assigned to the Strategic Air Command’s 46th Reconnaissance Squadron.
Ditched in a Sea of Ice
The Kee Bird’s mission originated at Ladd Army Air Field (Later Ladd Air Force Base) in east central Alaska near Fairbanks. The wheels-up landing on the ice was successful and the crew was uninjured. Three days later the crew was rescued by a C-54 transport which landed on the same frozen lake and returned to the United States. After the crew had destroyed or removed all classified materials the Kee Bird was abandoned in place. And there the Kee Bird sat, more or less intact, for 47 years.
Would-Be Rescuers With Credentials
Unlimited racing pilot and former SR-71 test pilot Daryl Greenamyer led a team of aircraft restorers to the Greenland emergency landing site in July of 1994. Greenamyer held several speed records in a variety of racing aircraft over the years. One of his creations, an F-104 Starfighter, was pieced together from various parts obtained primarily from wrecks, hulks, and scrap piles- so if anyone was prepared for the job of restoring a crash-landed B-29 in-place on the Greenland icecap it was probably Greenamyer.
Worth the Effort and Expense?
Greenamyer’s plan was to put the B-29 into flying condition on-site and fly Kee Bird out of the site to Thule Air Force Base in Greenland where additional work would be performed to make the aircraft airworthy before flying her back to the United States. The United States Air Force had long ago surrendered any claim to the Kee Bird. If Greenamyer and his team could get the Kee Bird off the ice intact for a short ferry flight to Thule she would become only the second airworthy B-29 in the world at the time.
Improvise, Adapt, Overcome, Tragedy
Using uncommon ingenuity and determination in the face of the austere nature of their facilities and available resources, Greenamyer’s team was able to replace the Kee Bird’s engines and propellers, mount new tires, and resurface the aircraft’s control surfaces which had succumbed to the harsh weather on Greenland’s ice cap. But as winter’s first snow began to fall Greenamyer’s chief engineer, Rick Kriege, had to be transported to a hospital in Canada where he died from a blood clot two weeks later. Greenamyer’s team had run out of time before the winter weather would make any further work on the Kee Bird impossible. Kee Bird would spend at least one more winter on the Greenland ice cap.
There’s No Quitting On the Ice
Greenamyer returned with additional personnel and equipment in May of 1995. Remaining repairs were completed and the aircraft was prepared for takeoff from the frozen lake on May 21st 1995. Using a small bulldozer that had been airlifted to the site, a crude runway was carved out of the packed snow on the surface of the frozen lake. After successfully starting the newly-installed Wright R-3350 engines and with everything in the “green”, the aircraft was lined up for takeoff.
Lucky to Get Out Alive
As Greenamyer taxied the aircraft onto the smoother surface of the frozen lake, the jury-rigged fuel tank for the B-29’s auxiliary power unit (APU) in the rear fuselage started leaking aviation fuel into the aircraft. A fire broke out and quickly spread to the rest of the fuselage. The cockpit crew exited the aircraft unharmed but one crew member who was located in the middle fuselage eyeballing the engines for takeoff was slightly burned and suffered from smoke inhalation.
Burned to the Ground
The fire quickly spread through the fuselage despite attempts to extinguish it from outside the plane. The Kee Bird’s fuselage was almost totally destroyed on the ground. The wings remained largely intact. It was feared that the wreckage (with nearly intact wing panels and engines) would sink to the bottom when the lake thawed in the spring. Already thinking about salvaging whatever parts he could from the Kee Bird, Greenamyer and his team were forced to watch as the Kee Bird and all of their work and sacrifice went up in flames.
There She Still Sits
In 2014 a NASA P-3 Orion was able to capture images of the remnants of the Kee Bird as it sat broken, crumpled, and burned on the Greenland ice cap. Every now and then someone will post pictures taken with what remains of the Kee Bird. When the Kee Bird took off on February 21st 1947, despite the best efforts of Greenamyer and his team, it was indeed her final flight.