B-29 “Kee Bird”: From Spy Plane to Polar Bear Playground

During the 2008 presidential election, Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin, then the Governor of Alaska, drew derisive smiles from many when she asserted that Russia could be seen from an island in her home state. While Governor Palin’s sense of the geopolitical tensions between the two countries may have lacked depth, her geographical assertion was correct. But the United States military had long been aware of the fact that, as Palin said, Russia and the United States were “next-door neighbors.” It was a geography lesson that the post-war United States could not ignore. 

The United States emerged from the Second World War as a superpower, but a new enemy was dawning in the form of its former ally in the fight against the Axis Powers, the Soviet Union. The Cold War had begun in earnest less than a year after the end of World War II. United States military intelligence was not unaware that the Soviets loomed as a threat following the war, but strategic information on the Communist power’s actual intentions and capabilities was lacking.  The Strategic Air Command wanted to be ready in case the covert war turned into more than words and proxy combat. With no way of spying on the Soviet heartland, the Americans sought information on activity along that nation’s Arctic borders. 

The 46th Reconnaissance Squadron was formed and needed a plane for its top-secret missions.  The 46th, which was assigned to Ladd Field near Fairbanks, Alaska, was officially assigned to fly over the area in order to map the Arctic, develop reliable polar navigation, study weather patterns, and test the efficiency of equipment used by the men in the challenging cold of the Arctic. Unofficially, the eleven-man crew was also keeping an eye on any Soviet action going on in the desolate, but strategic Arctic.  

The crew, led by U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Vern H. Arnett, flew the United States Army Air Forces Boeing B-29 Superfortress, more familiarly known as the Kee Bird, a reference to a bird which wintered in the Arctic. The soldiers who had been stationed in Canada and Alaska claimed that the bird’s call proclaimed, “Kee-kee-kee-rist, it’s cold!” although a more impressive ancestry credits a mythological member of the avian species whose diet consisted of glacial worms. 

Whatever the derivation of its nickname, the Kee Bird, which had come off the manufacturing line in 1945, was one of the Wichita, Kansas plant’s last B-29s. It was delivered to the U.S. military on August 9, 1945, but with World War II in its final days, Serial 45-21768 was placed in storage at an airfield in Tucson, Arizona until 1946 when it would be called into action for a new war, the Cold War, particularly fitting for a mission based out of Alaska.

The Kee Bird was one of six squadron aircraft fitted for its photographic reconnaissance work with special camera installations, including one K-18 camera, two K-22 cameras, and three K-17B cameras and re-designated as an F-13 in the photo reconnaissance series. The fancy photography equipment may have redefined the plane, but it remained a standard B-29, with defensive armament and bombing equipment.  If trouble arose, the Superfortress was capable of doing more than taking pictures. 

The crew of the 46th flew their first mission in August 1946; in October, a B-29 left Ladd and for the first time, flew over the North Pole, the start of what would become routine flights, flying along Siberia’s Arctic coast to monitor Soviet radar while remaining just within the boundaries of international airspace as they tested the capability of the Russians to detect American aircraft. It was not uncommon for the Soviets to scramble their own fighters in response.

On the afternoon of February 20, 1947, the Kee Bird took off for its seventh routine mission; routine, for a top-secret mission such as this, including flying with radio silence in order to avoid detection. The plane, with a flight pattern that included a trip to the Geographic North Pole before returning to Ladd, had enough fuel to remain airborne for 26 hours thanks to the extra fuel tanks in the unused bomb bays. 

At 7:56 AT on February 21, the CAA Radio Station at Point Barrow picked up a message from the Kee Bird. The sun was too low, depriving the flight of any means of steering the plane. Arnett’s next message came ten minutes later when he reported that they’d run into a bad storm at 24,000 feet and didn’t know where they were. Messages received shortly before 10:00 am revealed that the plan only had four minutes of fuel left, requiring a crash landing on land or on ice.  

Operators at Ladd guessed that the plane had landed on Alaska’s northern  coast on its return flight from the Geographic North Pole, and that the plane was lost.  Search areas were drawn up to assist in the rescue of the plane, which had, in fact, belly-landed on a frozen lake in Greenland, 700 miles from the North Pole. When asked by Ladd Field’s radio operator what they were doing in Greenland, the Kee-Bee’s radio operator responded, “We came down to shoot a few polar bears.”

Photo of the B-29 "Kee Bird"; crashed in Greenland in February 1947.
Photo of the B-29 “Kee Bird”; crashed in Greenland in February 1947.

What had actually happened was that the plane, after reaching the North Pole, made a 70 degree turn southeast and a 120 degree turn southwest.  When the Kee Bird’s pilot became disoriented and began to fly south, the emergency landing was made. The men of the crew had food and clothing to last for two weeks, but they were safely rescued after three days while the plane was left behind.

It remained there for decades, long enough for the Air Force to relinquish any claims to the plane. 

Until July 1994, when the Kee Bird Limited Liability Company, a team of aircraft restoration specialists, returned to the site where the crew had been evacuated and the plane abandoned. They found that the Kee Bird was still intact after its landing on the frozen lake. The restoration team was confident that  with their tools and equipment, they could make the plane flightworthy so that it could be brought back to Greenland for necessary repairs before returning the plane to the U.S. They had also brought extra tools and equipment, as well as parts, from the U.S. military base in Greenland in order to accomplish their goal. In the summer, they brought in an engine, four new propellers, new tires, an engine hoist and a bulldozer. 

The engine and propellers were replaced successfully by the team, as were the tires, and the restoration crew gained access to the Kee Bird’s controls. Unfortunately, the weather conditions meant their plans had to be halted, and so the team left the site, returning in May of the following year. Using the bulldozer, they had created a rudimentary runway out of snow and ice and on May 21, 1995, the repairs were finished and the plane was ready to leave the tundra where it had been for nearly half a century, to return to the U.S. base at Thule.

Wreckage of B-29 “Kee Bird” in 2014. [Courtesy: Michael Hjorth]
Wreckage of B-29 “Kee Bird” in 2014. [Courtesy: Michael Hjorth]
Wreckage of B-29 “Kee Bird” in 2014. [Courtesy: Michael Hjorth]
Wreckage of B-29 “Kee Bird” in 2014. [Courtesy: Michael Hjorth]
Wreckage of B-29 “Kee Bird” in 2014. [Courtesy: Michael Hjorth]

Then, when they were preparing to take off, a gas leak in the auxiliary power unit fuel tank was discovered. The gas leaked into the fuselage and a fire erupted, engulfing the entire plane in flames, burning the fuselage and the tail as well. The team tried to put out the fire, but could not overcome the blaze and had no choice but to abandon the Kee-Bee once again. There it remains, a snowbound legend encased in a frigid museum. In 2014, Operation IceBridge, an eight-year NASA mission, photographed the wreckage as part of its Arctic campaign. NASA’s P-3 Orion airplane, with a digital camera attached, took the photo on May 1, 2014. 

According to the Earth Observatory, the lines in the ice that can be seen around the Kee Bird are probably polar bear trails.