The B-29: Kee Bird

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Image of the “Kee Bird” crew just prior to their flight on February 20, 1947. Left to Right, back row: Aircraft Commander, Lt. Vern H. Arnett; Copilot, Lt. Russell S. Jordan; Flight Engineer, 2nd Lt. Robert Luedke; Navigator, Lt. John G. Lesman; Navigator, Lt. Burl Cowan; Copilot, Lt. Talbert M. Gates; (front row): Photo-gunner, M/Sgt. Lawrence L. Yarbrough; Photo-gunner S/Sgt. Ernest C. Stewart; Radio Operator, T/Sgt. Robert Leader; Photo-gunner, S/Sgt. Paul McNamara; Radar Observer, Lt. Howard H. Adams. Photo from “World In Peril” by Ken White, 1994.

​The Kee bird is a Boeing B-29 “Superfortress”, the most advanced and fearsome plane of WWII.  Its namesake is the mythological artic bird that solely subsists on glacial worms.  The Kee Bird, built towards the end of WWII, was assigned to the 46th Reconnaissance Squadron based out of Ladd Army Airfield in Fairbanks, Alaska.  It’s last mission was to look for evidence of Soviet action in the northern regions of the Arctic Circle.  She took off on February 21, 1947 and never completed her mission.  Low on fuel and disoriented by bad weather the pilot and crew of eleven, were forced to land on what turned out to be a frozen lake.  Three days later, they were discovered in Greenland, 250 miles north of Thule Air Force Base; the crew rescued but the plane left behind.  
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The Kee Bird and crew in Greenland as seen from the rescuing aircraft.

Plans for a recovery began in 1978 by Gary Larkins.  Over the course of several years, he established communications with the US Air Force and the Danish Government seeking permission to recover the craft.  And in 1993, permission had been granted.  He secured financial backing and support from Tom Hess and Darryl Greenamyer, with sponsorship from the National Air and Space Museum. 
 
When the party went out in the summer of 1994, the initial finding was that the Kee Bird was in excellent condition.  There was no detectible corrosion, minimal damage from the forced landing, and the interior of the craft was nearly complete.  The first task was to dig the B-29 out of the snow and lower the landing gear which required manually hand cranking and locking the into place.  They used cargo pallets to secure the still inflated tires.  The team reset the propellers, drained and replaced the old oil, added fuel to the engine, and installed new batteries.  After a few moments of cranking, the Kee Bird was brought back to life!
 
The plane was secured until they were able to return the following summer when the team, sans Larkins and now directed by pilot Darryl Greenamyer, used a 1962 DeHavilland Caribou as their shuttle plane.  In addition to necessary tools and equipment, they shuttled in four new propellers, an engine hoist, new tires, and a small bulldozer.  The team successfully replaced the four 18 cylinder radial engines, four sets of pre-balanced 16 foot long propellers, and mounted new nylon tires.  Darryl had also installed a new satellite navigation system.  What was anticipated as being a month long project took twice as long due to weather and unforeseeable challenges.  The crew would return nine months later.  On May 21, 1995, the plane was ready to take flight again. 
 
The plan was to take the plane to Thule Air Force Base, make any further repairs before flying back stateside and finishing restoration before the official national debut at Reno National Championship Air Races.  Unfortunately, the Kee Bird was never able to make the debut. 
 
A crude runway was constructed on the lake using the bulldozer.  It took full power to break the tires free of the ice.  Using the engines to steer the plane, Darryl directed it towards the runway.  The plane bounced and shook from the snowdrifts and suddenly smoke was seen coming from the cockpit.  A jury-rigged fuel tank suspended above the auxiliary power unit (APU which is a four cylinder motor that helps start the main generator of the plane) had been knocked loose, causing the fire.  The fire consumed the entire fuselage and tail.  All crew were able to escape unharmed, only minor smoke inhalation and flesh burns. 
What was possibly the most well preserved B-29 had been lost due to what some say was a rushed takeoff and carelessness.  What remains of the Kee Bird still rests on the edge of the lake today
Sources:
“World in Peril”, 1994 by Ken White *Book available in our bookstore
NOVA special, 1996, “B-29 Frozen in Time”
B29-Frozen for 50 Year

9 responses to “The B-29: Kee Bird”

  1. Richard Young ( former B-29 Flight engineer) Avatar
    Richard Young ( former B-29 Flight engineer)

    It was the 4 gal. dedicated fuel tank that was removed from its cradle and wired into position over the putt-putt so a fuel line could be directed to the carb, that was the culprit the led to its demise. the replacement putt-putt had a defective fuel pump,so Rich came up with this idea (that worked) so the gear could be lowered,and put power on the ship.Odd that this was overlooked on final inspection before take-off. Bob was lucky indeed to get out !!!!!!!

  2. Randy L Philpott Avatar
    Randy L Philpott

    The next ,if ever,flyable B 29 super fortress , should be built as a replica to the B 29 Kee Bird! If not a flying example, then build a static display to commemorate the famous plane! I would surely like to see a flying example of the Kee Bird More! I have a couple hours flying time on the CAF B 29 FiFi, and it has left an everlasting impression of that great warbird on me!

  3. Luke Avatar
    Luke

    My grandfather lucky luedke was navigator on that plane , he loved his crewman, his family, and his country. Than you u.s. air force, army, navy, marines,.

    1. Alex Avatar
      Alex

      My grandfather was Robert Leader, the radio operater. Do you know the story?

      1. Tracy Avatar
        Tracy

        My Father was John G. Lesman, Navigator

  4. Helen Avatar
    Helen

    I remember the name “kee-bird” from when we first came to Alaska in 1965, there was a popular bit of poetry or something, I don’t recall the whole thing, but the gist of it was a skinny-legged bird like that on the plane crying “Kee, kee, kee-ripes but it’s cold!”

    1. Christopher J Perron Avatar
      Christopher J Perron

      My father was flying the plane that found the Kee Bird. I read when they sent supply’s down after finding the crew alive and safe, they added personal notes poking fun at them for crashing their plane. I read the “World In Peril” it has fantastic account’s of their work and how it relates to our world today.

  5. Linda Podvin Avatar
    Linda Podvin

    I was so sad to see this B-29 didn’t make it. My dad was a B-29 pilot 1945.

  6. Andrew Graulich Avatar
    Andrew Graulich

    My grandfather, Bobbie Joe Cavnar, was piloting the C-54 that landed on the ice to rescue the crew. Granddad received the Distinguished Flying Cross from President Truman for his feat. Granddad was such a natural pilot even at 18 that he was kept stateside during WWII to train others. He became the youngest full colonel in the early USAF, flew B-36s for SAC (his tasking at one point was Red Square in Moscow), then managed USAF missile programs. He declined a promotion to general as he didn’t want to spend his life behind a Pentagon desk; he retired in the Sixties, and went on to success in business and non-profit work. He died in 2002, and, with his beloved wife Margaret (my Grandma), is buried in the National Cemetery outside of Dallas, Texas.

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