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All That Remains

Old aircraft crash scenes are littered with story fragments.

“Jeez,” someone says. “You’d think they could’ve found a better place to crash.”

The words would sound callous anyplace else, especially when you consider that the place in question is one where 16 men were killed in the line of duty. But for the last half an hour we have been crawling up a steep ravine of tottering sandstone boulders, and the effort is proving a little more than some of our party had signed on for.

Finally, as we approach a bend in what can  only generously be called a trail, Trey Brandt, our guide on this clear winter morning, draws our attention to a Volkswagen-size metallic shape glinting below.

“Look at that thing,” someone says.

“Amazing,” says another.

Several of us clamber down for a closer look, quickly gaining an appreciation of both the size and the complexity of the R-4360, the largest radial aircraft engine ever mass-produced. The dry high-desert air has left the parts so free of corrosion that they look as if they could have been cast last week. With cylinders snapped off and valves and connecting rods exposed for easy scrutiny, the  Pratt & Whitney serves as the ultimate exploded diagram.

“There’s a lot more further up,” Brandt assures us.

Today marks Brandt’s sixth march up Gray Mountain, a sheer edifice of boulder and brush in northern Arizona where, in 1957, an Air Force KC-97G Stratofreighter refueling tanker sent out to map low-altitude training routes made a wrong turn in bad weather and met a violent end. Still, Brandt, a quiet, self-effacing 32-year-old Phoenix stockbroker, shows no signs of tiring of the trek.

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.

One evening, a group of us sets out on one of Fuller’s workshops, piling into trucks for a three-hour drive from Fuller’s home to the southeastern Arizona town of Wilcox. There, we spend the night at the home of Jim Fusco, a wreck chaser and friend of Fuller’s and Brandt’s. Early the next morning, Fuller and Fusco lead us to a site where in 1943 a B-24 plowed into a mountain. According to the Army Air Forces accident report, the bomber’s rookie crew got lost after departing Tucson on a night training mission.

Our trip illustrates an axiom of wreck chasing: The more inaccessible the site, the better the payoff. This site took us almost three hours to reach on foot, but we were rewarded by the sight of the World War II aircraft’s intact wings, complete with landing gear still tucked inside the wells, and aluminum skin that gleamed as if it had been riveted into place yesterday.

Fuller says his idea of a “dream site” would be one he stumbled across without prior knowledge, leaving him to “solve the riddle.” It probably would not take him long. If the wreck site is that of, say, a World War II-era Vultee BT-13 Valiant, he will tell you that the airplane likely spun in, because that type had among the most unforgiving spin characteristics of any trainer ever produced. Using one of the thick parts catalogs he carries with him, he can translate a tiny inspector’s stamp on a shard of metal into a precise part identification, right down to the plant where the part was manufactured.

G. Pat Macha, a chaser from California, shares Fuller’s fantasy: “The thing that gets me,” he says, “is the thought that there could still be something under the sun that no one has ever seen before.” Macha, a soon-to-retire Los Angeles high school history teacher who has written several books on the subject and who many consider the dean of wreck chasers, began hunting wrecks throughout California in the early 1960s. In the years since, he has visited more than 300 sites.

Macha is occasionally called upon to help solve an aviation mystery—identifying debris stumbled upon by hikers and forest rangers, for instance. Two years ago, he received a call that topped them all. The caller was Ken Whitall-Scherfee, a Sacramento attorney; his wife, Laura, is the great-niece of Gertrude Tompkins Silver, who had flown with the Women Airforce Service Pilots, the only group of women to fly U.S. military aircraft during World War II. One evening in 1944, Silver took off in a factory-new P-51 Mustang from Mines Field (now Los Angeles International Airport), detailed to ferry the aircraft to New Jersey for shipment overseas. Her first stop was Palm Springs, and she never made it. Silver became the only WASP to go missing. Whitall-Scherfee asked if Macha was interested in helping solve the riddle.

Macha was. He had long considered Silver’s disappearance one of the more intriguing aviation mysteries of the Second World War. After studying the official Army Air Forces report, Macha theorized that Silver had become disoriented shortly after takeoff when she flew into a fog bank that had rolled in over Santa Monica Bay, just a mile and a half from the end of the runway at Mines. Last September, Macha and a group of volunteers began planning a survey of the bay’s bottom with sonar scanners they’d been able to borrow. Unfortunately, technical and logistical problems (after the September 11 attacks, “we didn’t want to have to explain to the Coast Guard what we were doing under the flight path to LAX,” he says) forced the team to halt its efforts. Macha hopes to try the survey again sometime this year.

Trey Brandt has also worked with family members to help them find out what exactly happened to their loved ones. He recalls a recent example: During his first trip to the Stratofreighter crash site on Gray Mountain last year, Brandt spotted a wadded-up blue airman’s jacket wedged under a boulder. In one pocket he found a medal of St. Anthony, patron saint of, among other things, shipwrecks and seekers of lost items. In another pocket he found a set of dog tags belonging to one of the Stratofreighter’s crew members. The jacket, Brandt guesses, had been left there by a member of the Air Force recovery team, who had pocketed the dog tags while scouring the site. Brandt continued to search, and ended up finding the dog tags of four other crew members, along with personal effects, including a watch stopped at 8:54 a.m.—a little more than 30 minutes after the airplane made its last position report.

Back home, Brandt began doing what he does so well, eventually tracking down survivors of three of the five crewmen and returning the dog tags. One of the survivors was Doris Dees, widow of the Stratofreighter’s copilot, Charles Darwin Dees. Brandt contacted her at her North Carolina home in June 2001. “I thought it was some sort of scam,” she recalls. “I kept waiting for him to ask me to send him money.”

Once convinced of Brandt’s sincerity, Doris told him about her life after losing Charles. She had moved back to the small town she had grown up in and where she had met Charles at the high school for black students. She went back to teaching, raised her son and daughter, became a grandmother, retired. She never remarried; Charles was her one true love.

In all those years, the question of what had really happened to Charles hovered over her like the old photo of him she kept on her mantel. The Air Force had never produced a body, instead interring the crew’s remains in a single casket at Arlington National Cemetery, outside Washington, D.C. Over the years, Doris often wondered whether Charles might not still be alive somewhere. What if he had bailed out and been injured, perhaps suffering amnesia, wandering the country like some real-life Manchurian Candidate?

Those questions were finally laid to rest a few days after she spoke with Brandt, when an envelope arrived from Phoenix. Inside were Charles’ dog tags. Doris took them out and held them, then hung them from his photo on the mantel. She says she hasn’t felt quite the same since. I ask her whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. “Oh, its a good thing,” she quickly responds. “Now I know.”

Little stands between most wrecks and oblivion. The Air Force washed its hands of the majority of its crashes when a fire destroyed the titles to all aircraft wrecked before 1961. “After that, the Air Force decided any wreckage sites from before that date would be considered formally abandoned,” explains Brad Smith, who heads the Air Force’s disposal and donation program, located at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. Anyone wanting anything from a pre-’61 wreck needs only the permission of whoever owns the land where the wreck resides. As for post-1961 wrecks, Smith’s office reviews salvage requests on a case-by-case basis.

The Navy takes a much more proprietary view of its wrecked craft. “The Navy basically considers all wrecks—both ships and airplanes—to be its property forever,” says Wendy Coble, a Naval archaeologist in Washington, D.C. The Navy takes a dim view of salvagers, she says, because wreck sites often are the last resting places for their crews. (Most everyone who has visited a fair share of sites has come across human remains.) The Navy’s policy is also based on the danger of unexploded ordnance. Then there’s the fact that the aircraft were purchased with taxpayer money: “They should belong to everyone,” Coble says. Some salvagers disagree with the “keep off” policy, pointing out that the Navy itself does not salvage many of its wrecks and thus risks losing valuable artifacts to neglect and exposure (see “Whose Planes Are They Anyway?” Oct./Nov. 1998).

Even though people may have died at them, most wreck sites aren’t considered significant historically, so they are offered no protection under the National Historical Register. The only recognition such sites will ever receive comes from the wreck chasers themselves, some of whom have erected simple memorials. Jim Fusco put one up last year at a site in southeastern Arizona where in 1943 a B-24 exploded in mid-air while being ferried from Texas to Arizona. The Army Air Forces removed the large pieces of the bomber, but small bits are still scattered over the area like shells on a beach. In the middle of the debris field stands a simple aluminum cross listing the aircraft type, the date of the explosion, and the names of the four crew members who died in it. The cross is hidden by thick creosote and ocotillo and set back from the nearby freeway. I ask Fusco why he installed a monument that so few will ever see. “I just felt like I needed to give something back,” he says.

But wreck chasers can also pose a threat to the sites. At Gray Mountain, I sit down on one of the warm rocks to enjoy the remarkable view the clean, dry air affords: Our trucks appear as glinting specks far below. It’s a view that invites reflection—or would invite reflection, were it not for an obnoxious clanging coming from somewhere above me. I swivel around and see one of the members of our party—a retired gentleman, a friend of a friend of Brandt’s—hammering at something on one of the engines with a rock. After several minutes, he finally comes away with his prize: the data plate from the engine’s fuel injection unit.

The sight of a grown man smashing away at a piece of aviation history with such troglodytic abandon galls me, but then who am I to judge? Beside my computer at home sits a .50-caliber shell casing I pocketed at the B-24 mountain crash site, a theft that makes me as guilty as Mr. Dataplate.

Larger-scale threats have also endangered the sites. At one time, the warbird restoration industry relied heavily on wrecks for cheap parts, though by now most of the easily scavenged bits have disappeared. Warbird dealers have even taken entire wrecks, the big prize being the data plate. A dealer can construct an entire airplane of cannibalized or remanufactured parts, slap on the data plate, and then market the ersatz result as a genuine warbird.

Then there are the scrap metal dealers. As we make our way up the Gray Mountain ravine, we pass several rusted, concrete-lined 55-gallon drums—makeshift smelters used by aluminum scavengers who hit the site during the 1960s. All of the Stratofreighter’s major airframe components—the fuselage, wings, and tail—are now gone, cooked down into ingots that were hauled out by pack mules.

Nonetheless, the Gray Mountain site still holds surprises. The day I visit, we find emergency food kits with intact packets of bubble gum and dehydrated coffee and tea, plus bars of toffee melted into a molten mass. We also come across .22 Stinger rounds from the gun in the airplane’s survival kit. But it is Trey Brandt who makes the supreme find: a cartridge from an 8-mm movie camera. Later, he will rush the cartridge to a film lab in Canada that specializes in such things. Amazingly, a few faint, sepia-tinted frames turn out: a dour, corn-fed-looking woman standing in her kitchen in a plaid house dress, arms akimbo, in an aspect Grant Wood would have admired; the same woman with a small boy standing in front of her. It’s impossible to tell who they are, their faces having been made unreadable by poor lighting and the film’s condition. Perhaps she is the mother of one of the crewmen, or the wife. Perhaps he is a son who is still alive somewhere.

For a wreck chaser, it’s a great find. But it’s not one that would interest an academic historian. This site, after all, isn’t Normandy or Buchenwald. It’s just a junk-strewn heap of rocks in the middle of nowhere, a place where, on a fall day in 1957, an enormous silver airplane came hurtling out of the clouds with the terrible force of eighty tons pulled by fourteen thousand horses, toward the spot where we now stand, on a mountain that was not supposed to have been there.

I can only hope they never saw it coming.

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