All That Remains
Old aircraft crash scenes are littered with story fragments.
- By Howard James Stansfield
- Air & Space magazine, November 2002
(Page 2 of 5)
Brandt is a wreck chaser, one of a small number of enthusiasts whose passions lie among the scattered fittings and twisted metal at the places where military aircraft have crashed. They learn of the sites by trading rumors and poring over old accident reports. Some chasers specialize: In Southern California, Tony Moore and Pete Merlin have concentrated on 1950s experimental Air Force craft (see “The X-Hunters,” Feb./Mar. 1995). A few are pilots, but most aren’t, and almost none has formal archaeological training.
Brandt sees himself as an amateur historian, and the sites offer him a chance to commune with the past in a direct way—to stand at some desolate scene with an old accident-report photo showing men and equipment swarming about a shattered, smoking hulk, then line it up with the nearby landmarks until past and present merge.
For Brandt, locating the wreck is often just the beginning. He has gone on to track down and contact long-retired pilots and crewmen, leading some to the places where their craft came to rest. “I guess I do it because that’s where you hear the kinds of things that never make it into the reports,” Brandt says. “Guys’ll say ‘Yeah, I bailed out and then my chute collapsed’ or ‘I was getting blown toward the mountains, but then I started getting blown the other way and things worked out all right.’ That’s the kind of thing that makes it really interesting for me.”
In the decade he has pursued the hobby, Brandt has visited close to 100 sites and contacted at least that many pilots, crew members, and deceased crew members’ families. He has also led next of kin to sites so they could pay tribute to lost fathers or grandfathers.
Craig Fuller, on the other hand, has yet to contact anyone even remotely associated with any of the wrecks he has explored. “I’m pretty introverted in that regard,” he says. “I’m not a good cold caller.” But in the subspecies Wreck chaser americanus, Fuller, a bookish 32-year-old university flight instructor, is an alpha male. He has been to some 200 wreck sites. In his home, near Phoenix, cowlings, control stick grips, throttle quadrants, and instrument faces all vie for shelf space with tomes about warbirds. On one wall hang neat rows of data plates—small pieces of metal once attached to airplanes, each stamped with a serial number, aircraft type, and contract number. A data plate is the wreck chaser equivalent of an autographed home-run ball.
Fuller has converted a bedroom into a home office, where large metal cabinets sit crammed with spools of microfilm containing most U.S. military air accident reports from 1918 through 1955. Fuller began buying the archive when it was declassified in 1996.
Among the vocation’s more ardent devotees, a certain collegiality prevails, and a certain amount of information is shared. Fuller, for example, sells copies of his accident reports; in a given month, he may sell 20 to 25. He also conducts at least two “workshops” a month, leading fellow enthusiasts on searches for Arizona wrecks.
But there is also some friendly competition—and some guardedness. Recently Brandt got a call from a woman who said she was writing a book on wrecks and wanted the exact coordinates for the Gray Mountain site. Brandt had discovered those only by investing a good deal of time and money, so he declined to provide them to the caller. “She was not happy,” he says.