Saturday, April 30, 2011

Hunting Warbirds: The Obsessive Quest for the Lost Aircraft of World War II, by Carl Hoffman

Hunting Warbirds: The Obsessive Quest for the Lost Aircraft of World War II, by Carl Hoffman
Ballantine Books, 2001
241 pages. No index. 16 pages of b&w photos.
Library: 623.746 HOF

"Winged treasure" they call them-the lost remains of the great American fighter planes and bombers that won World War II. Hellcats and Supperfortresses, Corsairs and Dauntlesses. Produced by the thousands at the height of the war, and then cast off as scrap in the decades that followed, these warbirds are now worth literally anything-fortunes,families, even lives-to the peoplewho search for them. Like many men, writer Carl Hoffman was bitten by the warbird bug as a child. But he never imagined that he would one day witness and participate in a heroic adventure himself-the most audacious warbird rescue attempt of all time.

The crash of the Kee Bird B-29 Superfortress made banner headlines in 1947 when a team of Air Force pilots pulled off the near-miraculous feat of locating the wreck in Greenland and snatching its stranded crew from the teeth of the arctic winter.

For nearly half a century, the almost perfectly intact warbird lay abandoned on a lake of ice-but not forgotten. Fifty years later, with collectors paying upward of a million dollars for salvageable WWII planes, two intense fanatics, legendary test pilot Darryl Greenamyer and starry-eyed salvage wizard Gary Larkins, hatched the insane idea of launching an expedition to Greenland to find the Kee Bird, bring it back to life, and fly it out.

In this riveting adventure of man, machine and history, the quest for winged treasure ultimately extends far beyond the search for the Kee Bird. Hoffman literally crisscrosses the country to track down the key players in the high-stakes warbird game.

He meets a retired Midwestern carpenter who crammed every inch of his yard with now-precious warbirds during the lean years when they were considered junk; attends an air show where crowds go wild at the sight of four of the fourteen airworthy B-17s flying in formation, speaks to pilots and mechanics, millionaire businessmen and penniless kids-all of them ready to drop everything in pursuit of these fabled planes.

"These planes are a sickness, that's all there is to it," one warbird fan tells Hoffma as he lovingly polishes his vintage B-17. In this superbly crafted narrative, Hoffman turns the warbird craze into the stuff of high drama and awesome adventure. Hunting Warbirds takes us to the heart of one of the most fascinating obsessions of our time.

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