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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.

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