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Crash Junkie

Flight instructor Craig Fuller scales mountains, combs deserts and trudges through wilderness to track down old airplane wrecks

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We've been scratching and crawling our way up a canyon in Arizona's ChiricahuaMountains for more than two hours, and we still have no real idea where we're headed. The July temperature is about 100. We're all dirty, and some of us are bleeding in spots. What we're looking for is really nothing more than junk, the remains of a long-lost plane.

I'm beginning to doubt this could possibly qualify as a "fun hobby" when I see Craig Fuller, a boyish-looking 34-year-old, standing on a rock up ahead surveying the scene. "Once again, we have determined where the airplane is not," he announces with mock gravity, breaking into a smile that says there's no place he'd rather be.

Fuller loves plane crashes. But before you write him off as some sort of cheerful ghoul, I should add that it's old plane crashes that Fuller loves. He's part of an unusual band of enthusiasts known as wreck chasers, although he doesn't care much for the term. Wreck chasers are guys—they do seem to be almost all guys—who track down the crashed remains of old airplanes, mainly military aircraft. These planes are either ones the government long ago stopped looking for or, more often, found and decided to leave alone because of the remote locations. Most date from the 1950s or earlier. Today the U.S. military usually cleans any crash site thoroughly, even replacing soil contaminated by jet fuel.

There's a surprising number of wrecks still out there. Nearly 22,000 U.S. Army Air Forces planes crashed in the United States during training for World War II alone; B-24 Liberators, B-17 Flying Fortresses, P-38 Lightnings—all the famous warbirds from that era—along with training aircraft and even some fighter jets, left their remains in remote parts of the Southwest, where most pilot training took place. If you were once a young boy of a certain kind, you had models of many of these planes hanging from your ceiling. I was one of those boys, and when I heard about wreck chasing, I knew I wanted to give it a try.

This led me to Fuller, a flight instructor for Phoenix-based Mesa Airlines, who may be the most devoted wreck chaser around. Fuller has been hiking into the wilderness in search of wrecks since he was 14 and heard about the remains of a P-38 in the mountains near his boyhood home in Santa Rosa, California. He found that wreck, brought back pieces of it, made a report to the local historical society and was hooked. "It just combined a lot of things I was interested in," he says, "hiking, history, airplanes."

While studying to become a pilot at Embry-RiddleAeronauticalUniversity in Prescott, Arizona, Fuller flirted with the idea of becoming a crash investigator, but decided that was too much like being a glorified insurance adjuster. To his delight, though, he found that the state was full of old crashed planes and people who enjoyed hunting for them.

He's been to more than 250 wrecks since he found that P-38 back in 1984. He's looked for planes up and down the PacificCoast and across the Southwest, climbing mountains, scouring deserts, once even trying to haul scuba equipment by hand up to a remote alpine lake in Nevada. He sometimes searches alone, but more often hooks up with other wreck chasers, members of a far-flung community that stay in touch through the Internet.

Fuller, who is single, lives in Mesa, Arizona, outside Phoenix, on a quiet street in a comfortable ranch-style house that serves as a kind of museum to his hobby. Photographs and even actual pieces of planes decorate almost every room, from the hunk of fuselage from an AT-6 Texan training plane in the living room to the collection of instrument faces in his office. He once had sections of six AT-6s—including wings and a tail—in his backyard. "I had this idea I was going to restore one," he says sheepishly, "and I thought I'd use the others for parts."

Shelves on the walls of his office hold roughly 160 two-inch-thick white binders documenting crash sites across the Western United States—a trove of photographs, maps and old news articles. But his real treasure is in his desk: the official crash reports for almost every accident involving planes belonging to the U.S. Air Force and its predecessors from 1918 through 1955 on more than a thousand rolls of microfilm. Each roll has 2,000 to 3,000 pages, which means Fuller has two million to three million pages of documented disaster. The rolls cost him $30 a piece. This explains why he has the only microfilm reader I've ever seen in someone's home. "And two microfilm printers," he says. "Everyone should have a spare."

In 1998, in an effort to recoup some of the $30,000 he spent on microfilm, Fuller began selling accident reports to other crash junkies. His collection quickly made him a clearinghouse for fellow enthusiasts. The day Fuller and I went to the mountains, we met up with two of his buddies: Jim Fusco, a wiry 53-year-old maintenance planner for an electric power plant outside Willcox, Arizona, and Dave Peterson, 44, a teacher from Livermore, California. Swapping stories about brutal hikes, wrong turns and the discovery of long-lost planes in the wilderness, they make wreck chasing sound like a Hardy Boys adventure. "Everybody loves a treasure hunt," Fuller points out.

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