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'Hidden Warbirds' takes readers on hunt for aircraft around Alaska and the world

Colleen Mondor

Over the years aircraft hunters and museums have come through Alaska in search of pieces and parts to fill holes in aviation collections Outside. Most frequently, they are in search of military aircraft generally lost during the World War II era, when battles raged in the Aleutians and bases across the territory were also used to transfer aircraft to Russia.

Most recently, a group from Michigan recovered a B-25 that crashed near the Tanana River in 1969 while on a firefighting mission. The “Sandbar Mitchell” is now part of a longterm project to be completely refurbished and showcased in the proposed Warbirds of Glory Museum.

Author Nicholas Veronico, a past president of the Society of American History, appreciates the hunt for crashed and long-forgotten military aircraft more than most and takes readers deep into the “epic stories of finding, recovering and rebuilding WWII’s lost aircraft” around the world in his recent book "Hidden Warbirds." Heavily illustrated with color photographs and handsomely designed in a sturdy hardcover with glossy pages, Veronico's book shares tales of a variety of aircraft discovered in a multitude of locations, including an SB2U-2 Vindicator dive bomber recovered from Lake Michigan, a B-17E in Papua New Guinea, B-29s in California, and a P-51 Mustang in someone’s garage. Really.

There is an entire section on the “Frozen North” that includes a P-38 from Greenland and the famous B-26 “Million Dollar Valley” Marauders that crashed in 1942 while en route from Edmonton to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, and ultimately Elmendorf Air Force Base in Anchorage. Alaskans will take special note though of the chapter on two B-24 Liberators. One of them remains on Atka Island, where it has rested since crashing in bad weather in 1942. That aircraft has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is under the jurisdiction of the Aleutian Islands National Wildlife Refuge; access to the site is restricted. According to Veronico, it is one of the only nearly intact B-24s in the world still in place at its wartime crash site.

The second Alaskan B-24, an LB-30 Liberator, flew with the Royal Air Force during World War II. It was purchased by the Morrison-Knudsen Company in 1951 and given the civilian tail number N68735. The company was very active in Alaska during WWII and is responsible for constructing numerous airfields in the state, as well as many other huge projects around the world including the Hoover Dam, the Vehicle Assembly Building at Cape Kennedy and portions of the Alaska pipeline.

The Morrison-Knudsen Company used the B-24 to transport men and supplies during construction of the Distant Early Warning Line during the early 1950s. After sliding off the runway in Wales ( on the tip of the Seward Peninsula northwest of Nome), the aircraft was repaired and the tail number changed again, to N92MK. According to Veronico, in 1958, N92MK landed short at the small airport at Kalikaket Creek -- misidentified in the book as “Kilikat Creek” -- on the ridge about 20-30 miles south of Galena.

Kalikaket was a “White Alice” site used by the U.S. Air Force during the Cold War. It was connected to the DEW Line but eventually, like the rest of the system, became obsolete with the advent of satellite communications. When N92MK crashed at Kalikaket, with no reported fatalities, it was deemed too costly to repair. The avionics were removed and the wreckage was moved off the runway. It remained there for more than 30 years.

In 1990, with the price of warbirds skyrocketing, the Alaska Aviation Heritage Museum recovered the bomber and placed it up for sale, It was purchased by Lone Star Flight Museum in Texas who transported it to Fort Collins, Colo., where it was placed in outside storage. In 2001,Veronico reports, it was sold --  still in pieces  -- to World Jet, a company known to buy and sell warbirds for decades. N92MK has not received much attention however and is, reportedly, still in that same yard in Fort Collins. Veronico includes a photo of what is left, after so many pieces have been lost along the way.

There are other references to Alaska within “Hidden Warbirds,” including an interesting note in a chapter about a Navy Harpoon bomber that was purchased by Everts Air Cargo in Fairbanks.

“The Company,” writes Veronico, “wanted the Harpoon and its spares primarily for the R-2800 engines, which it needed for its fleet of Curtiss C-46 Commandos.” He notes that Everts did take possession of the aircraft’s engines and the spares but never returned for the Harpoon itself. After 16 years, Everts was told to remove the fuselage or it would be scrapped. They ended up donating it to the Stockton Field Aviation Museum in California who took possession and removed it just ahead of an October 2010 deadline.

In many ways, “Hidden Warbirds” is a treasure hunt for adults; a delightful way to enjoy the magic of finding and recovering increasingly rare pieces of aviation history. Not everyone has the money or expertise to actively participate in such adventures, but Veronico has done an excellent job of placing readers right on the ground with those who do recover these planes and with many of them in such remote locations, the tales are quite epic.

Finally, “Hidden Warbirds” includes an extensive bibliography and list of internet resources on aviation archeology. Veronico also discusses recent finds and those “still out there” in his epilogue.

“Hidden Warbirds” can be purchased directly from the publisher or via bookstores and other online sources. A second title, “Hidden Warbirds II” is due out in May.

Contact Colleen Mondor at colleen(at)alaskadispatch.com.