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Photographer visits historic Alaska airplane crash sites with a 'Happy End'

Colleen Mondor
Orange sand aircraft is a Cessna 310 that crashed in Australia in 1993. All survived.
Courtesy of Dietmar Eckell
Aircraft in the tall grass is referred to as "The Swamp Ghost" by locals. It is a B24 Liberator that had a forced landing in Papua New Guinea in 1943. All 9 crewmen survived.
Courtesy of Dietmar Eckell
Aircraft on rocks is a C-47 near Haines, Junction, Yukon Territory that crashed in 1950 while on search for a missing aircraft. All 10 onboard survived.
Courtesy of Dietmar Eckell
Aircraft in trees is a Fairchild C82 operated by Interior Airways that crashed near Beaver, AK in 1965. All 3 occupants survived.
Courtesy of Dietmar Eckell
Aircraft in trees is a Fairchild C82 operated by Interior Airways that crashed near Beaver, AK in 1965
Courtesy of Dietmar Eckell
Small fighter aircraft that ditched in ocean near Honolulu, Hawaii in 1948. The pilot swam to safety.
Courtesy of Dietmar Eckell
A Cessna T50 Bobcat also known as a "Bamboo Bomber" that ran out of gas about 100 miles from Ft Yukon in the 1960s. According to the story, the two pilots walked out.
Courtesy of Dietmar Eckell
Aircraft in trees is a C46 Curtiss Commando that crashed near Thompson, Manitoba, Canada in 1977. Both crew members survived.
Courtesy of Dietmar Eckell
Aircraft on rocks is a C46 Curtiss Commando operated by Lambair that had a forced landing in 1979 about a half-mile from Churchill-Metropolitan Area Airport in Manitoba. Reportedly the aircraft was overloaded. All survived.
Courtesy of Dietmar Eckell
Aircraft on the beach is a Grumman Albatross near Puerto Escondido, Mexico that crashed in 2004 while under pursuit from government aircraft. It was believed to be involved in drug trafficking. According to local news, all survived.
Courtesy of Dietmar Eckell
On the sand is a British Avro Shackleton operated by the South African Air Force that crashed in the Western Sahara desert in 1994 after a double-engine failure. All 19 occupants survived.
Courtesy of Dietmar Eckell
Aircraft in water is a Bristol 170 freighter operated by Pacific Western Airlines that broke through the ice while landing at Beaverlodge Lake, in the Northwest Territories, Canada in 1956. All 3 occupants survived.
Courtesy of Dietmar Eckell

Photographer Dietmar Eckell received attention earlier this year when he launched a phenomenally successful Indiegogo campaign to fund publication of his coffee table book "Happy End." Looking to raise $4,000, he eventually got more than $57,000 in donations. While many news sites found his photographs of aircraft wrecks to be captivating, few noted that several of the pictures were taken in Alaska.

Eckell learned about the specific accidents profiled in his book through the website of the international Flight Safety Foundation. This is how he also verified that there were no fatalities suffered in any of the crashes, which is why he ultimately titled the book "Happy End." The database provided him with information about the aircraft type, location and the specific circumstances of the accident. For example, the Interior Airways Fairchild C-82A, which he photographed in the Interior Alaska village of Beaver, crashed in 1965 after the pilot neglected to use carburetor de-icing and both engines failed.

Over a three-year period beginning in 2010, Eckell visited Alaska and Canada, finding the planes he had read about. There are four Alaska aircraft in "Happy End," from Beaver, Allakaket, Venetie and Fort Yukon. Eckell also visited Adak hoping to obtain transportation out to Atka to photograph a B-24 that crashed 70 years ago, but was unable to do so. He plans to return to that site in the future.

His success was dependent upon the assistance of local pilots who brought him out to the sites at minimal charge. This was especially true in Fairbanks, where one commuter/air taxi owner was especially helpful. As Eckell explained in an email from his native Germany:

I have been to Alaska twice and met very cool pilots like Art Warbelow and was always impressed how supportive they were to 'strangers' who just walked up to them with questions or emailed them with requests. My normal 'procedure' for getting to the wreck up north was that I found them on the Internet, once in the area go to the local airport and ask pilots if they know the exact location. If there was no pilot around, I asked in town to get in contact with the pilots....Great people up north. Once I know the exact location, I try to hike there to get pictures from the ground. 

A pilot recommended by Warbelow flew Eckell over Fort Yukon, where he was able to obtain an aerial photograph of his target -- the only crash he has not yet visited on the ground. “Art was busy, (moose season,)” explained Eckell, “... but invited me to dinner at his house with other pilots to share some locations/stories. Great guy!”

In Allakaket, Venetie and Beaver, locals took him out to the wrecks. In Beaver, he hired two local kids on a four-wheeler to act as guides.

The photographer looks forward to returning to Alaska to add to his series.  “I still have a few more wrecks (with happy endings) in Alaska that I would like to add to the series,” he explains. “If one of your readers is up for an adventure and has a plane, please get in contact with me (I pay for gas and the beers after the mission is completed).”

To read more about Eckell or see his work (both aviation and otherwise), visit his website.

"Happy End," which includes photos from Papua New Guinea, Africa and Canada can be purchased directly from Deitmar Eckell. All details about shipping, etc. are found on his indiegogo website.

Colleen Mondor is a licensed pilot who worked for years as lead dispatcher for a Fairbanks-based bush commuter, coordinating flights of everything from prisoners to sled dogs to snowmachines. She has degrees in aviation, history and northern studies is author of "The Map of My Dead Pilots: The Dangerous Game of Flying in Alaska." Contact her at colleen(at)alaskadispatch.com