All That Remains

Old aircraft crash scenes are littered with story fragments.

Air & Space Magazine

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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.

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