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.