B-29: Frozen in Time
An abandoned B-29 bomber in Greenland is brought back to life after more than 50 years. Airing January 30, 1996 at 9 pm on PBS Aired January 30, 1996 on PBS
NOVA accompanies famed test pilot Darryl Greenamyer and his intrepid crew on a perilous mission to repair and re-fly a B-29 bomber stranded on the Greenland icecap since 1947. In the face of incredible hardships, the team struggles to bring the old warbird back to life.
B-29: Frozen in Time
PBS Airdate: January 30, 1996
NARRATOR: Tonight on NOVA, a two-hour adventure to recover the relics of wars long past. First, in Greenland, a deserted but intact B-29 bomber has been waiting for rescue for more than fifty years. Can this team fly the Kee Bird home?
VERNON RICH: Just like new again.
NARRATOR: A daunting challenge becomes a life and death struggle. Then, World War I. Britannic, twin sister of the ill-fated Titanic, is made safer and commissioned as a hospital ship. Today, she lies somewhere in the Mediterranean. Can a modern-day team determine what made this unsinkable ship sink? It's a two-hour NOVA special: "B-29 Frozen in Time" followed by "Titanic's Lost Sister."
NOVA is funded by Merck. Merck. Pharmaceutical research. Dedicated to preventing disease and improving health. Merck. Committed to bringing out the best in medicine. And by Prudential.
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RICHARD CRENNA: A C-141 lifts off from Thule Air Force Base. Once a vital staging post for the nuclear bomber fleet, Thule is now a relic of the Cold War. While its radar domes still probe the horizon, it is eerily quiet and almost deserted. One of the most remote and isolated outposts of the United States Air Force, it lies on the inhospitable barren shore of northwest Greenland, deep inside the Arctic Circle. The climate is harsh and unforgiving. Even in summer, when the sun never sets, it remains so cold that the sea is littered with icebergs. Inland, a vast unbroken icecap stretches for eight hundred miles. The weather changes hourly, from bright sun to dark, menacing storm clouds with gale-force winds. Two hundred and fifty miles north of Thule lies another relic of the Cold War, an almost-intact B-29 bomber. This plane, nicknamed the Kee Bird, became lost and crash-landed while on a secret mission. The crew was rescued, but the Kee Bird would lie here abandoned for almost fifty years. When the B-29 first flew in 1942, it could go higher and farther than any other bomber. In the war against Japan, it traversed the Pacific and crested the Himalayas. The culmination of the B-29's military service was when the Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, ending the war. Nearly four thousand of these planes were built, but now less than a handful remain. If the Kee Bird could be recovered from this Arctic wilderness, it would be a unique treasure of aviation history, probably worth a great deal of money. Darryl Greenamyer, a former test pilot, has been working on a bold plan to rescue the B-29 and fly it back home. Darryl has flown higher and faster than most other living pilots. He had once been a test pilot on the U-2 spy plane and its replacement, the SR-71 Blackbird. In the seventies, he built his own Starfighter jet from spare parts to gain a low-altitude speed record, which he still holds. An accomplished pilot and engineer used to taking risks, if anyone could pull this off, it was Darryl.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: It really is a unique opportunity. It may be the only airplane in the world that I can think of that's been sitting somewhere for fifty years that you could actually get in and potentially fly. It's just, you know, a far-away place. That's the reason it's available.
RICHARD CRENNA: But getting the Kee Bird into the air requires more than skill and boldness. The bulk of the heavy supplies and machinery that Darryl would need has to be carried to Thule on the annual supply ship. A five-ton bulldozer will be needed to build a runway for the B-29. Bulky new tires and propellers are also required, along with four massive, reconditioned radial engines. All of this equipment has to be carried north over the two hundred and fifty miles of desolate Arctic landscape that separates Thule from the bomber. Darryl's solution is a 1962 Caribou, another of his salvaged wonders.
RICK KRIEGE: It's basically a short-field—You know, a short landing and take-off—airplane, and it's made for unimproved fields. They used it in Vietnam a lot, and it's a pretty rugged airplane. It's ideal for this sort of thing, flying these engines in, and it'll carry a pretty good load.
RICHARD CRENNA: Rick Kriege, who had been Darryl's chief engineer for over seven years, is responsible for making his plans work. With the Caribou's arrival in mid-July, Darryl's team is complete. Cecilio Grande has been Rick's assistant for three years, learning on the job. Vernon Rich is a toolmaker and machinist, and Bob Vanderveen, as well as being another pair of hands, is going to do the cooking. Roger von Grote, a retired airline pilot and a distant relative of Baron von Richtofen, will fly the Caribou. Darryl and the others take off from Thule. Their flight takes them over uncharted mountains and glaciers, two hundred and fifty miles north. It is a risky journey into the unknown, where the chances of rescue are slim. Finally, they come to the valley where the B-29 came to rest. They fly low over the valley floor. Roger lowers the wheels and makes a brief touchdown to test how firm the surface is. It seems fine, so they go around and come in to make a landing. If anything goes wrong now, the consequences could be fatal. But they make it.
TEAM MEMBER: Fantastico! Fantastico!
RICHARD CRENNA: The relieve and euphoria spills out as they examine their landing strip.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: Fantastic, huh?
ROGER VON GROTE: If we can get the thing turned around in this soft dirt, you know. . .
DARRYL GREENAMYER: Oh, yeah, we can. And, in fact, I felt this is the first really soft stuff we hit. Look back here.
ROGER VON GROTE: Yeah. Do you like our veer-off approach?
RICHARD CRENNA: The team begins to set up camp, as behind them, the B-29 gleams like new in the chill Arctic sunshine, a time capsule preserved in this remote valley. All around is evidence of the remarkable story of the Kee Bird's last crew. For them, landing here had been nothing to celebrate. It had been the start of a frightening three days.
RUSSELL S. JORDAN: I honestly didn't think we was going to get out. I had made up my mind on the way down that, you know, this is no dream. This is reality. Face it and accept it.
JOHN G. LESMAN: And then we realized once we were out, the plane was not on fire. That was the main concern. Arnett made a hell of a good landing, and the airplane was intact.
RICHARD CRENNA: Nobody was hurt in the crash landing, but they were stranded in a deadly climate miles from anywhere, not knowing if they would be rescued.
JOHN G. LESMAN: My biggest concern, I was too busy, frankly, wanting to get a position in to the search airplanes, so somebody would know where we were. That was the big thing, establishing our position and finding out where in the hell we are so we could be rescued.
RUSSELL S. JORDAN: Our spirits were high. We knew we were going to get out. We just—There wasn't one guy didn't feel like we weren't going to make it. But, I remember the cold and no place to go to get warm. That's the thing that I remember mostly about it.
RICHARD CRENNA: On the second day, an Air Force plane found the Kee Bird.
JOHN G. LESMAN: The greatest we felt when that plane flew overheard with the supplies and they knew where we—They actually physically spotted us. That was the greatest feeling.
RICHARD CRENNA: A day later, a plane landed beside them and flew them out to safety. Now, at last, the Kee Bird was going to be rescued as well.
JOHN G. LESMAN: I've got torn feelings. Everybody's excited about getting it out and they're going to make a lot of money out of it, apparently, and everybody's going to look at this airplane. It's great and all that. But, somehow, it's something like going into an Indian grave, as far as I'm concerned. I kind of feel like it belongs up there.
RICHARD CRENNA: No longer claimed by the Air Force, the Kee Bird was now available to anyone who could fly her out. Darryl and his team go to work.
RICK KRIEGE: Kee Bird, Kee Bird. Over.
RICHARD CRENNA: The radio link to Thule is established, the tents set up, and Bob starts work on recovering the damaged rudder, which, despite the aluminum construction of the B-29, had been covered in fabric. Then, as the Caribou taxies to return to Thule, their precarious situation is brought home to them.
RICK KRIEGE: Darryl was trying to taxi around and I was out watching it, and he got going a little bit, and then, the nose wheel just went all the way, ninety. Both tires rolled off the rim and lost all their air. I thought we were stuck here.
RICHARD CRENNA: It takes hours to dig the wheels out of the sticky mud. Rick's idea to use propane gas from the camp stove allows the Caribou to return to Thule, even though the wheels could explode if they get too hot. The plane takes off, leaving Rick, Bob, and Cecilio behind. Once at Thule, they refill the tires.
VERNON RICH: Don't make any sparks. Just don't make any sparks.
RICHARD CRENNA: It is vital to get the bulldozer up to the B-29 and improvise a runway, but the Caribou will be seriously overloaded, and as Darryl inches the bulldozer onto the plane, Roger is concerned.
ROGER VON GROTE: It's a little bit higher risk than I really thought it would be, because Darryl maxes everything to the limit. If both engines run, it'll get off the ground. But if one engine quits, we're just going to have to crash straight ahead, because one engine's not going to carry the load.
RICHARD CRENNA: The Caribou, slow and cumbersome, returns to the B-29. Rick lights a bonfire so that Roger knows the wind direction for his landing. As the dangerously overloaded Caribou comes in to land, people on the ground do not realize that something has gone seriously wrong. The flaps had failed, and Roger had nearly lost control.
ROGER VON GROTE: We came in a no-flapper. I came—I came —
RICK KRIEGE: I knew you were coming.
ROGER VON GROTE: Well, at ninety knots, I stalled, and I was in this shaker at ninety, and Darryl said we can't do it without any flaps. I thought, oh, shit. I don't want to go all the way back. We're getting low on fuel.
RICHARD CRENNA: The Caribou has plowed into the soft earth. Another inch, and the propellers would have smashed into the ground. Disaster had been narrowly averted. Darryl puts the bulldozer to work on the B-29, immediately proving its worth. The Kee Bird is back on dry land for the first time in half a century. When the giant B-29 crashed in 1947, the bomb bay doors suffered the most obvious damage. They will be taken off to be replaced later.
RICK KRIEGE: Well, the snow really cushioned it real well. It built up under the bomb bays, and the bomb bay doors took all the load and about ninety percent of the damage. There's a little bit of damage on the fuselage and on the flaps, but that's it.
RICHARD CRENNA: The propellers were badly buckled by the crash, and the main engine bearings were twisted. New ones will be put in their place.
CECILIO GRANDE: The key elements were the engines, but we've got four new engines. We ran two of them on the test stand. They all ran. They ran great. We need to get these engines on and tidied up and ready to run and then hang propellers.
RICHARD CRENNA: They take an inventory of the work necessary to get the plane air worthy.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: The tires, they look good, but they're rayon, and rayon doesn't age well, so we brought up some nylon tires to change them out. The rudder and the elevators are going to be changed out. Coming on over here to the ailerons, the control surfaces were fabric, and they have to be changed. They were paper-thin; you could put your finger right through them.
RICHARD CRENNA: The summer here is very short, so time is of the essence, and Darryl has a limited budget. He planned to make a round trip in the Caribou every two days to fly in the engines and parts from Thule. The weather so far has prevented this. Darryl hoped the whole project could be finished in a month, but two weeks have passed and he has yet to fly a single new engine out of Thule. Captain Dougan, the base manager, asks him about the schedule.
CAPT. DOUGAN: . . .when you got here, that, you know, were trying to plan to have people in here.
ROGER VON GROTE: That's assuming we could fly straight through, and we haven't been able to.
CAPT. DOUGAN: And I told him, I said, "The weather up here is not like—It may be summer, but it's not summer like you think of it in the United States."
DARRYL GREENAMYER: Yeah, that's right. Talk to the man upstairs and do something with this weather, will you?
CAPT. DOUGAN: Well, to get it the same at both sites would be unique, also.
ROGER VON GROTE: Yeah.
CAPT. DOUGAN: Yeah.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: Actually, the weather up there the last few days has been nice.
CAPT. DOUGAN: Well, that's what I heard. I was going to say, it's good up there, and it has been good here. I mean —
DARRYL GREENAMYER: In fact, it's hot.
ROGER VON GROTE: Yeah, it gets actually hot sometimes, like fifty degrees.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: And no wind.
RICHARD CRENNA: Back at the B-29, Rick, Cecilio, and Bob continue working, stripping off the old twisted propellers. Rick designed the hoist from old photos of B-29s being field-maintained during the Second World War. Darryl and Roger return with a new engine, and the old ones are slowly eased off.
RICK KRIEGE: Idle it down, just real easy. Go forward.
RICHARD CRENNA: Before the new engines can be installed, a lot of components need to be stripped from the old ones.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: Well, how do you want to dismantle this thing?
RICK KRIEGE: Well, first you've got to take the carburetors, take all this stuff off. Then we've got to take the injection pumps off, then we've got to take the carburetor off.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: OK.
RICK KRIEGE: Then we take the motor mount off.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: All right.
RICHARD CRENNA: Eventually, a small production line is set up, as old engines are dismantled to be taken back to Thule and the new ones are made ready to be hoisted back into place on the old engine mountings. The engines themselves are massive eighteen-cylinder radials, the most powerful ever built. Changing these huge engines in a warm hangar is difficult enough. Doing it in the middle of the Arctic will be a back-breaking task. Rick is tireless, and his workload isn't only confined to the B-29. The Caribou also presents problems. The Caribou takes off on its third trip to Thule. It circles and returns to land. Roger thinks there may be an engine fire.
ROGER VON GROTE: As soon as I went to cruise power, the light came on and it was flashing. And I went back and looked at the engine. I didn't see any smoke or anything, but I was reading in a book where they said you can get some fires internally with no smoke evidence, so—Well, we thought it was prudent to come back where the maintenance is.
RICHARD CRENNA: Rick discovers that the fire indicator on the engine is faulty. The aborted flight has cost Darryl more time.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: It's really disappointing. What can I say? I mean, here we've got two beautiful days of weather coming up, and we've got plenty of work to do, but it's just going to—If we can't take off on Monday, then we are behind. We're going to have people sitting on their hands doing nothing.
RICHARD CRENNA: Then the weather causes more delay. A month has passed, and it is now the second week of August. Snow is beginning to settle ominously on the surrounding hills. Rick and Cecilio keep working even in the rain, hammering on the exhaust cowlings.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: Well, that was easy.
RICK KRIEGE: Whose side are you on?
DARRYL GREENAMYER: Have you heard a report from the CASA on the tops of the clouds? And also, is it scattered or broken back at Thule?
THULE RADIO: It's broken back here. It's scattered 1.7.
RICHARD CRENNA: Darryl is desperate to keep the shuttle flights going and feels that he has to risk flying in bad weather.
THULE RADIO: So don't bother going that direction.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: OK. I guess we'll give it a shot. We'll come around and then we'll try and come in under it.
RICK KRIEGE: OK. Come down with it. Let's go ahead and back up with it again. Can you keep turning it on and off? Turn it on again.
RICHARD CRENNA: The work is physically demanding. Removing the old tires takes hours, even using the bulldozer to separate them from the rim. Rick is beginning to show the strain of this hard work and looks exhausted. Mealtimes bring some respite and are an opportunity to tell stories of old exploits, like the time Darryl tried to take off in Panama without using the runway.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: They wanted me to take off on the ramp so they didn't have to open up the fence to get on Panama property to use the runway. So, I said, "Well, no problem." But then, they wanted me to take off a little bit downwind because if I went the other way, I'd be flying over the general's house. And so, I said, "Well, OK. I think so." It was a downhill run and then a slight turn about sixty knots, and then down the ramp.
ROGER VON GROTE: How much runway do you have, all told?
DARRYL GREENAMYER: I don't remember. But, what happened was, I went down the little hill and made the right turn, and then it started bouncing, and all of a sudden, the nose wheel steering kicked out, and I tried to hold it, and the—I was too close to the fence, and so it kind of lifted off and then squatted right down on the fence. But I didn't give up just then. I kept going.
BOB VANDERVEEN: Working on the wing in that snowstorm, it was too hot, and it was coming loose because of that.
ROGER VON GROTE: Oh, really?
RICHARD CRENNA: Bob has finished recovering the rudder with fabric, and he and Roger are now putting the finishing touches to it. Vernon has had to make many of the small components for the rudder cables and control surfaces from scratch. Without blueprints, it is not easy.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: And then put the other one with the flange in its place and then drill this one out and stick it in the other end, so we'll have the same configuration you're getting.
VERNON RICH: Just like we made the other two.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: Well, you do—Yeah, except that—No, no. We'll go to this size bolt.
VERNON RICH: Right. Right.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: Yeah.
VERNON RICH: So, we're going up.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: Right.
BOB VANDERVEEN: Just like new again.
ROGER VON GROTE: Yup. It'll fly.
BOB VANDERVEEN: This is the real recovery work here.
ROGER VON GROTE: It'll fly.
BOB VANDERVEEN: You bet it'll fly.
RICHARD CRENNA: By the time the rudder is ready to be hoisted back into place, the project has taken five weeks, far longer than Darryl's original forecast. But the sun is now back, and people's spirits have lifted again.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: Stick a bolt in there and I'll wiggle it around. Can you tap it in?
ROGER VON GROTE: That's what I'm going to try to do now.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: Now, you see the flange in front? It's got to be straight with this.
ROGER VON GROTE: I see the flange in front very well.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: I mean, in back. In back. In the back of the flange. See, it's a flat spot?
ROGER VON GROTE: Yeah, I see the flat spot.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: Well, it isn't lined up.
ROGER VON GROTE: Oh, it isn't.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: It's going.
ROGER VON GROTE: Yeah, it is.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: Hold it right there.
ROGER VON GROTE: That's it.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: Well, it fell in.
VERNON RICH: Are you crying? Are you so happy? Are those tears of joy? You got it.
RICHARD CRENNA: The weeks of work are paying off. The ruder has been fitted and four new engines are in place. The last major job is the propellers.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: The propellers came out of a prop shop in Tucson, and they've been overhauled, but they haven't been final-assembled yet. We'll put those together and hand them on. But I don't anticipate any problem with that. I've done that before and they usually go together pretty easy. These are awful big propellers, though, the biggest I've ever dealt with.
RICHARD CRENNA: Carefully balanced in a workshop back home, they have to be assembled in the right sequence, or they'll rip the engines apart.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: Oh, Vernon, I stepped right on your foot.
VERNON RICH: That's all right.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: OK. Go on in.
VERNON RICH: Oop, oop. The ring fell off.
ROGER VON GROTE: This way?
DARRYL GREENAMYER: Yeah. Put it on the —
VERNON RICH: Shit.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: The thing needs to be wiped off. It's probably got sand all over it now. Set it down here. Set it down. Here, let me have it.
CECILIO GRANDE: Right.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: Up. OK. You got it. All right, here we go. Let's go. Hup. OK. Set it down.
CECILIO GRANDE: Damn! Look at that!
DARRYL GREENAMYER: See, that's what happens when you have the first team in.
ROGER VON GROTE: Oh, that's right.
RICHARD CRENNA: Sixteen feet across and weighing almost a ton, they're difficult to maneuver.
VERNON RICH: OK. That looks good. Whoa, whoa.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: We're going to have to come down about an inch and a half first.
RICK KRIEGE: How's the frame, Vern?
VERNON RICH: OK.
RICK KRIEGE: A little bit more. OK. Hold it.
VERNON RICH: OK. That's it.
RICK KRIEGE: OK. Now, you should be able to rock it.
RICHARD CRENNA: Now it's time to start an engine. It's the first real test of weeks of exhausting work, and the engine refuses to start. Rick thinks he knows what's wrong.
RICK KRIEGE: Would you get me a pair of tin snips? No, no. It takes pressure. The carburetor doesn't want to work.
RICHARD CRENNA: The carburetor needs adjusting.
RICK KRIEGE: Yay! Yippee!
RICHARD CRENNA: Everyone is jubilant, but still, only one engine has been tested. Time is running out fast, and Vernon is still working on the other three.
VERNON RICH: We've got to hook everything up to them to make sure that they work. We've got to put the magnetos on, the generators, all the fuel system, the oil system. It probably takes twelve, fourteen hours after the time you stick it on there, per motor, to actually get them going. And that's in a nice heated hangar with all the tools that you need. So, when it's blowing, blowing snow sideways, it takes a little bit longer. And we'll fix it; we'll get it going.
RICHARD CRENNA: The last major hurdle is a runway. Darryl uses the bulldozer to level the ground, but the heavy rain has left the tundra waterlogged, with shallow lakes dotting the surface. Normally, a B-29 will use a runway of over five thousand feet, but the most Darryl can hope for is two thousand feet of dry earth to take off in.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: This is the worst spot of all, right here, and it's really at a critical distance.
ROGER VON GROTE: Well, you know, like you were saying two days ago, there was no water here, so hopefully, with three or four good days—
DARRYL GREENAMYER: Yeah.
ROGER VON GROTE: —just like this, this water won't even be here.
RICHARD CRENNA: It's August the 22nd, and the first sunset at midnight signals the approach of the polar winter. Finally, all four engines have their controls and fuel systems connected and are ready to be tested. Darryl climbs into the cockpit and the first engine is turned over.
VERNON RICH: It's a beautiful sight!
CECILIO GRANDE: Incredible, yes!
RICHARD CRENNA: The engines will have to run perfectly to lift the giant bomber from such a short runway. Rick knows that everything needs to be double-checked.
RICK KRIEGE: Why don't you stand off on that side and look down there and see if you can see any oil leaks. I'm going to go around here and see if I can find anything.
RICHARD CRENNA: Work continues on the engines, eliminating oil leaks and making sure that everything will work as it should.
RICK KRIEGE: This one's got an oil leak. That one's got a loose push rod tube.
RICHARD CRENNA: It seems that the flight of the Kee Bird will be only a few days away. The Caribou departs for Thule to pick up more fuel for the bomber, but just as success seems within reach, Rick has become ill. For several weeks, he's been taking painkillers for what he's insisted is a badly twisted back. Most days, he's faced the grueling schedule in great pain. He has now collapsed and can no longer do any work. Then the Caribou returns with a serious mechanical problem, one that puts everybody's safety in jeopardy.
ROGER VON GROTE: We lost partial power on the right engine of the Caribou, and we thought it was probably a cylinder problem, and then when we arrived, we found that we had a stuck exhaust valve, and it was hitting the top of the piston, and we need a cylinder to get out of here with any kind of safety at all.
RICHARD CRENNA: The winter finally hits, bringing gale-force winds and freezing rain. The temperature plummets. Soon, life here will be impossible. If they don't get out now, they never will. The first of the winter snow is settling on the camp. After two months, time has beaten Darryl. Work on the Kee Bird stops, as everyone's attention focusses on the Caribou. The Caribou is their lifeline, and Vernon and Cecilio struggle to fit a spare cylinder. Despite inadequate tools and freezing fingers, they manage to do it, but the engine still has a serious oil leak, and there's no guarantee it won't give out altogether as they fly over the glacier back to Thule.
CECILIO GRANDE: You fly this now?
ROGER VON GROTE: Yeah. If we could put oil in the engine while we're flying, then we have absolutely no problem at all.
RICHARD CRENNA: Every flight of the Caribou is a flirtation with death. This is ever more so. As ice is knocked off the Caribou's wing, Darryl faces up to the fact that he can go no further.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: I'm just going to have to sit down and take a long thinking session about what we're going to do. I haven't given up. We've got too much—We're too close. The airplane is essentially ready to fly. We never did get a runway suitable to take off this year. The winter caught us. Rick is sicker than a dog; we've got to get him out of here, and probably to a hospital. And so, things are coming to a screeching halt.
RICHARD CRENNA: At last, they're ready to pull out, leaving the Kee Bird where it has been for nearly fifty years. Halfway through the flight, the Caribou's right engine loses power, but they manage to struggle on one engine into Thule. Rick is carried off into an ambulance. Suffering from internal bleeding, he is flown to a hospital in Canada, and rushed to surgery. Two weeks later, this kind and gentle man, a resourceful and highly-skilled engineer, died of a blood clot. Darryl could barely come to terms with Rick's death, but having come so far, he was not prepared to give up his struggle to recover the B-29. It would mean bitter disappointment and financial disaster. Nine months later, with the Caribou still out of action at Thule, Darryl returns to the Kee Bird in a chartered Twin Otter. He has enlarged the team with the inclusion of Matt Jackson and John Cater, both specialists in radial engines, an old friend Al Hansen, and Thad Dulin, a qualified B-29 flight engineer. The temperature never rises above twenty-four degrees Fahrenheit. The cold makes the work far more difficult, but Darryl's plan is to use the surface of the frozen lake as a runway.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: We were trying to get here as late as possible before the ice melted so that we could use the lake for the runway, and yet not have miserable cold weather.
RICHARD CRENNA: The lake is covered in snowdrifts, but Darryl's main concern is how long it will remain frozen.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: I'd say two weeks, we've got to get on that lake or we're in trouble.
RICHARD CRENNA: The snow has piled up around the Kee Bird, and the engines need to be thoroughly checked after the winter. The new team is all business. The biting cold is a spur to their determination to get the job done. Darryl is concerned about the effect the cold will have on the engines and takes his time warming them up.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: She's running at low RPM until the oil temperature gets up.
TEAM MEMBER: How long will that take?
DARRYL GREENAMYER: Ten minutes.
RICHARD CRENNA: They discover a number of oil leaks.
MATT JACKSON: We're fighting little gremlins right now because of the weather. You know, moisture and cold really wreaks havoc on an airplane. You can bring a brand-new airplane up here and let it sit for a week, and you'll have the same kind of problems.
RICHARD CRENNA: The engine cowlings have to be taken off and replaced every time something needs fixing in the engines. And every time an engine stops, great care has to be taken before it can be restarted. After a week of work, the engines are running smoothly, and the oil leaks have been eliminated. The flight of the Kee Bird is approaching, and Darryl turns his thoughts to the runway.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: What I'm concerned about is the drifts on the lake. I tried to flatten them out with the bulldozer and the grater that we've got, but I may have created more problem than I cured, because it left little mounds. The problem with the B-29 is there's no nose wheel steering, and so, when I hit one of these mounds with the right gear, it's going to pull right. It's a problem. We're just going to have to get out and try it.
RICHARD CRENNA: The engines cool quickly in this climate, and an oil-burning heater pipes hot air under the cowlings to keep them close to working temperature. Preparations get underway for the first flight. Darryl must be ready as soon as the conditions are right.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: Today is a good day. It's warmer, and what we'll do is, we'll start at one end. We're preheating one engine now, and we'll start it. Then we'll start the next one, and then get to the third one. By the time we get to the third one, we'll probably go back and run the first one and then get—So, we get them all up to temperature at the same time. And then, once we get them up there, we've got to keep them there. That's why it's so critical to, once we get everything warmed up and ready to go, that we don't dally: we go. Otherwise, we've got to start the whole process again, and that's burning fuel, which is a precious commodity up here. You know, when the engines are running and there's a surge of adrenaline, I want to get in it and go. And I think it'll make it.
RICHARD CRENNA: Darryl strides to the cockpit. The dream that has obsessed him for three years is just hours from being realized. Thad sits at the flight engineer's console to start all four engines. Instruments that have remained dormant for fifty years once again register life in the machine. The giant radial engines can deliver over two thousand horsepower each. Thad makes last-minute adjustments to the oil pressure and the carburetors to get the engines running sweetly.
THAD DULIN: I don't have much in the way of nose oil pressure on three, Darryl, but it's coming up now. The manifold pressure gauge just came loose. There she comes.
RICHARD CRENNA: As the propellers shimmer in the sunlight, Darryl puts the coordinates for Thule into the newly-installed satellite navigation system. The plane has frozen into the mud and snow, and it takes maximum power to break the wheels free. The nose wheel can't be controlled, and at slow speeds, Darryl has to adjust the engine power to steer the plane. Finally, it is moving in a wide circle, out onto the lake, on its way toward the end of the runway. The plane is bounced and shaken by the frozen snowdrifts. Suddenly, smoke can be seen pouring from the windows in the cockpit. The auxiliary power unit, a stand-by generator, was thrown from its mounting in the rear fuselage, and caught fire.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: Get another fire extinguisher!
RICHARD CRENNA: Fortunately, the crew managed to jump clear. Darryl shouts for more extinguishers, but it's too late. The fire has already swept through the plane. He can do nothing but stand and watch as this irreplaceable piece of aviation history is consumed by fire. With it go the years of planning and hard work by so many people.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: It's gonna burn to the ground. Apparently, the APU was left running in the tail, and the fuel tank broke loose and dumped fuel on the APU and started the fire in the tail. That's where the fire extinguisher was, but we couldn't get to it. I don't think it would have made a difference which way we took off. It would have been airborne a third of the way across the lake.
MATT JACKSON: Well, I almost threw my bag in before you pulled out, because I figured we were gonna go. So I just put my tools in.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: Where are they, up front?
MATT JACKSON: No. They were in the tail where the fire was.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: Oh, shit.
MATT JACKSON: They're (expletive deleted) gone.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: My tools are up front.
MATT JACKSON: Well, it wasn't because you didn't try.
DARRYL GREENAMYER: Yeah. It was ready to go. That's the real tragedy of it. I mean, we were so close. Success was right there. It was right there. But, this is my game, and I'd do it again.
RICHARD CRENNA: Darryl had faith that the B-29 would fly once again, with him at the controls, but instead, it remains on the frozen surface. When the ice melts, what's left of the Kee Bird, the new engines and propellers, will sink and come to rest on the dark bottom of the lake, forever.
B-29: Frozen in Time
- Written, Produced, and Directed by
- Mike Rossiter
- Richard Crenna
- Jonathan Morris
- Noel Smart
- Sound Recording
- Albert Bailey
- Phil Sawyer
- Sound Mix
- Colin Martin
- Online Editors
- Mary E. Fenton Jim Deering
- Special Thanks
- Kee Bird Limited Liability Co., Tom Hess, Darryl Greenamyer and Ascher Ward
- NOVA Series Graphics
- yU + co.
- NOVA Theme Music
- Walter Werzowa
- Additional NOVA Theme Music
- Ray Loring
- Post Production Online Editor
- Michael H. Amundson
- Closed Captioning
- The Caption Center
- Eileen Campion
- Steve Sears
- Kate Becker
- Production Coordinator
- Linda Callahan
- Sarah Erlandson
- Talent Relations
- Scott Kardel, Esq.
- Legal Counsel
- Susan Rosen
- Post Production Assistant
- Darcy Forlenza
- Associate Producer, Post Production
- Patrick Carey
- Post Production Supervisor
- Regina O'Toole
- Post Production Editor
- Rebecca Nieto
- Post Production Manager
- Nathan Gunner
- Compliance Manager
- Linzy Emery
- Development Producer
- Pamela Rosenstein
- Supervising Producer
- Stephen Sweigart
- Business Manager
- Joseph P. Tracy
- Senior Producer and Project Director
- Lisa Mirowitz
- Coordinating Producer
- Laurie Cahalane
- Senior Science Editor
- Evan Hadingham
- Senior Series Producer
- Melanie Wallace
- Executive Producer
- Howard Swartz
- Managing Director
- Alan Ritsko
- Senior Executive Producer
- Paula S. Apsell
- A NOVA Production by Debonair Production Co. Ltd. for WGBH in association with Channel Four Television and Sveriges Television
- © 1996 WGBH Educational Foundation
- All Rights Reserved
- Kee Bird in Snow
- © Tim Wright/CORBIS
Full Program | 53:54
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