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This Day in History: Kee Bird Survivors

On this day in 1947, a United States Army Air Forces crew is rescued from the arctic ice. Their Boeing B-29 Superfortress, Kee Bird, had run out of fuel over Greenland and crash landed on a frozen lake just three days earlier.

Yet even after Kee Bird’s crew was gone, the plane wasn’t forgotten. Several decades later, an attempt was made to rescue it. After all, she was then the “most well-preserved B-29” still in existence, as an Alaskan Air Museum describes.

Kee Bird’s story starts with Project Nanook, a Cold War effort to map the Arctic and to investigate the possibility of Soviet action there. Her crew was tasked with a mission to the North Pole and departed on February 20.

Pilot Vernon Arnett soon noted that Kee Bird was using fuel a little too fast, but the trip otherwise seemed routine. He flew over the North Pole and turned toward home shortly after midnight on February 21.

Unfortunately, the weather took a turn for the worse.

Ice began to form on Kee Bird’s wings and prop tips, even as she fought her way through heavy turbulence. Meanwhile, heavy cloud cover complicated navigator Burl Cowan’s attempts to see the stars and get a celestial fix. In the end, copilot Russell Jordan used precious fuel to climb above the clouds for a better view, but dawn was breaking. A view of the stars remained elusive.

Kee Bird was lost, and she was using fuel too fast. Cowan decided to follow the sun, which should at least take Kee Bird away from Russia.

The crew had been ordered to keep radio silence, but things were getting desperate. Radio operator Robert Leader sent a message via Morse code, asking for a radio fix on Kee Bird’s position. Another message soon followed: a crash landing was imminent.

Gunner Ernie Stewart later recalled bracing for impact. He thought of his mother and hoped she wouldn’t get a telegram too quickly. He didn’t want her to worry. In the cockpit, Jordan was angry that “an accumulation of little stupid events” was going to lead to his death.

What a relief when they crash landed safely and skidded to a halt? Gunner Paul McNamara jumped out and gratefully drew a cross in the snow.

Kee Bird’s crew couldn’t then know it, but radio operators at Ladd Field had gotten a fix on the plane’s bearing before she went down. The search for Kee Bird’s survivors was pulled together quickly.

In the meantime, Kee Bird’s crew was on the ground, making the best of a bad situation. They drained oil out of the B-29’s engine. It froze in blocks that could be used to fuel a fire. They got the radio working, too, which improved spirits immensely.

Rescue finally came on February 24.

Twenty-two-year-old Bobbie Joe Cavnar was the bold pilot who ultimately attempted the difficult arctic rescue. Newspapers later lauded his bravery, with one noting that he “wagered his life that a sheet of ice beside the crashed B-29 would hold his 20-ton four-engined plane—and won.”

Kee Bird’s survivors made a “human runway” of sorts, with 5 men on one side and 6 on the other, showing the plane where to land. “I don’t think I ever could have made it if those fellows had not lined up on the ice to show me a possible runway,” Cavnar concluded.

If the landing was hard, the take-off with the added weight of Kee Bird’s crew was worse.

Rockets beneath the wings of Cavnar’s C-54 aided the departure, burning just long enough to give the plane an assist. Kee Bird’s crew had been saved.

The plane remained stranded, with relatively minor damage. Several decades later, a team of aircraft restorers would return, attempting to salvage the plane.

Naturally, that is a story for another day.

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