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Duck Hunt in Greenland

On November 29, 1942, a U.S. Coast Guard Grumman J2F-4 Duck crashed in bad weather on the Greenland ice cap, killing its pilot and radio operator as well as a USAAF B-17 crewman who was a passenger. The Duck had been involved in a complex, multi-service, air and ground attempt to rescue the crew of his crashed B-17. The wrecked Duck— wings torn off but fuselage intact—was spotted from the air eight days later, but there was no sign of life and a Coast Guard ground party twice was unable to find the wreck as the Greenland winter rapidly approached.

Over 70 years, the battered Grumman amphibian—and, presumably, the remains of its occupants—sank deeper into the ice and was encased under dozens of feet of windblown snow, while the glacier continued its imperceptible but inevitable march southward to the sea. The exact location of the crash site, once at best a penciled guess on a chart with few landmarks, became an increasing mystery. But the Coast Guard needed to solve that mystery: The lost crewmen eventually became two of the last three unrecovered Coast Guardsmen from any war America had fought. (The third had been buried in a mass grave in the Philippines.)

A magnetometer search using a Navy EP-3 Aries was flown in 2008 and achieved enough hits that, two years later, the Coast Guard hired a company specializing in Arctic and Antarctic aircraft searches, North South Polar Inc., to put warm boots on frozen ground in another search for the Duck. No joy, unfortunately, but that expedition did narrow down the search area.

Last year the Coasties went back for another hard look. Once again they were guided by North South Polar CEO Lou Sapienza, who had made his bones in 1992 as a member of the expedition that recovered the deep-under-the-ice P-38 today known as Glacier Girl. Following lessons learned from the Glacier Girl recovery, NSP used a high-pressure, hot-water-jet “drill” to burn a borehole 38 feet down through the ice, where a fisheye-lens optical viewer ringed by bright LED lights revealed what looked like World War II–vintage electrical wiring. A nearby borehole uncovered engine-compartment components that could well be Grumman parts.

Success? Not yet. The Coast Guard will return to the site as soon as possible to actually recover the aircraft and, it is hoped, the assumed human remains. (After all, it’s possible that the Duck crewmen survived the crash and attempted to hike out.) Whether the Duck will be recovered for restoration, for eventual exhibition as is or simply to retrieve the crewmen’s remains has not been determined.

The amphibian and its three occupants are literally the tip of the iceberg, and we’ll be recounting in an upcoming issue the amazing story behind one of the largest, deadliest and at best least marginally successful aviation search-and-rescue operations ever performed.

-Stephan Wilkinson

LAS Contract Dispute Continues

A contract for 20 light air support (LAS) air- planes destined for Afghanistan’s fledgling air force has stalled again, as Beechcraft Corporation filed suit against the U.S. Air Force to halt work on the project. This is Beechcraft’s third challenge to the $427.5 million contract, which the Pentagon awarded to Brazilian-based Embraer and its U.S. partner, Sierra Nevada Corporation. After the last challenge, Pentagon officials overrode the “stop work” portion of the protest to allow work on the planes to continue. Beechcraft’s latest action threatens to stifle that progress. In the meantime, Embraer and SNC have signed a lease on a hangar at Jacksonville International Airport, where much of the assembly of 20 turbo prop A-29 Super Tucanos is expected to be completed; SNC will build the avionics package at a Colorado facility. The turbo prop has been in service in a variety of countries since the late 1990s.

The debate extends an already lengthy process that on its surface was painted as a battle between American jobs and foreign corporate interests. Additionally, Beechcraft officials argued, their proposed aircraft would cost less. Embraer for its part pointed out that the Pentagon contract called for a “non-developmental, in-production aircraft.” Beechcraft’s proposed AT-6 did not meet that qualification as, at the time of the proposal, only two prototypes existed (the T-6 on which it is based, however, has an extensive and successful history).

Citing “unusual and compelling circumstances,” Pentagon officials sided with Embraer, highlighting the fact that there is a time-sensitive need for the aircraft in Afghanistan, where NATO-led troops are already beginning to withdraw. The selection process, they noted, has already extended over two years, and the airplanes were expected to be delivered by 2014. Delays now threaten to disrupt American plans to leave Afghanistan.

The loss of the contract comes at a difficult time for Kansas-based Beechcraft, which recently emerged from bankruptcy with a recovery plan specifically designed to focus on the turboprop business.

-Martin A. Bartels

Collier Goes to Curiosity

Every year the National Aeronautic Association awards the Robert J. Collier Trophy for “the greatest achievement in aeronautics or astronautics in America, with respect to improving the performance, efficiency, and safety of air or space vehicles, the value of which has been thoroughly demonstrated by actual use during the preceding year.”The winner for 2012 was NASA/JPL’s Mars Science Laboratory/Curiosity Project, which delivered the Curiosity rover to Mars, where it is doing a variety of experiments designed to help us better understand ancient Martian environments. Two other NASA/JPL endeavors—the Voyager Interstellar Mission and Dawn asteroid probe—were also in the running. Other nominees were Felix Baumgartner, who set a world record by skydiving 24 miles, and the Red Bull Stratos Team that supported his effort; Lockheed Martin’s K-MAX unmanned aerial cargo system; the Gulfstream G650 highspeed, ultra-long-range business jet; and the U.S. Air Force’s MC-12 Project Liberty, which developed a twin-engine turboprop (modified Hawker Beechcraft King Air 350s and King Air 350ERs) to provide intelligence, surveillance and recon support to ground forces in combat.

What’s Up With Doc?

It’s been a slow recovery for the B-29 Superfortress known as more than 40 years parked in the Mohave Desert, the vintage bomber was rescued and moved to Wichita by Doc, but its vital signs now look good. After aviation enthusiast Tony Mazzolini. A variety of factors delayed progress on its restoration until earlier this year, when a group of local business leaders formed the nonprofit organization Doc’s Friends to raise funds to return it to flight. More at


Originally published in the July 2013 issue of Aviation History. To subscribe, click here.