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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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The plane we were hunting was one Fuller had long wanted to get a look at: an AT-17B (a twin-engine trainer commonly known as a Bobcat) that crashed on December 28, 1943, in the rugged terrain. Although the bodies of the two pilots were removed and the wreck partly buried by the Army Air Forces in the 1940s, the exact location of the plane was lost over time. Searching for it had been an obsession for several wreck chasers until two years ago, when Fusco found it with the aid of Herman Wicke, a rancher who originally located the wreck in 1945. Fusco feels sure he can lead us back to the site. He'd taken a GPS reading, after all. But the mountain is a maze of deep ravines, where GPS locators don't work so well. Two hours in, we are still bushwhacking our way over cactus-infested slopes.

When we finally find the AT-17B, it appears to be little more than a tangle of rusted metal. Fuller seems to sense my disappointment. "People think they’re going to find these airplanes that look like you can fly them out of there," he says, "and usually they look a lot worse than this."

The only evidence of the two pilots, Lt. Robert Andrus and his student, Cadet Gayle Kral, is a white metal cross with their names on it, placed there by Fusco in 2001. In all the wrecks Fuller has visited, he's found human remains in only two, and then only small fragments of bone. People often ask him if he finds body parts, but, he insists, "it's not about that at all." Rather, it's about remembrance. America's rush to transform itself into an air power after Pearl Harbor took a greater toll in lives than most people realize. About 15,000 airmen died in training mishaps in the primitive, often-difficult-to-fly aircraft of the era, roughly about a quarter of those actually killed in combat. "It wasn't combat," says Fuller, "but it was part of the cost of keeping America free."

Fuller and his friends have been able to return dog tags and flight wings to the families of lost airmen. Perhaps more importantly, they've been able to fill in some emotional blanks for relatives. One of Fuller's most rewarding moments came when he was able to reassure the widow of Air Force Capt. Hudson T. West that she was not to blame for the death of her husband in an accident over Nevada in 1959. For decades she had wondered if her failure to make him breakfast that morning—something stressed as the duty of all good Air Force wives at the time—had left him sluggish at a critical moment. But the crash report, which Fuller found, indicated her husband was cut off by another plane during a mock dogfight and that the accident was beyond his control. "When you can help someone like that," Fuller says, "it really gives what we do a purpose."

Wreck chasing got its start in Britain, where downed planes were part of the post-World-War-II landscape. For a long time the people who sought out crashes were mainly souvenir hunters, or salvagers searching for parts. Fuller admits that when he began, he, too, "hauled down whatever I could." But gradually he began to see the wrecks as part of aviation history, as memorials to the men who lost their lives in distant corners of the nation they served.

Now, he says, he has "a hard time picking up anything." (The stuff in his house dates from years ago.) He thinks of himself as an amateur archaeologist and works through an organization he started, Aviation Archaeological Investigation and Research, to promote an approach that protects the integrity of the sites. "There's this community of crash enthusiasts starting up that goes out to the sites and contemplates what happened there," he says, "but tries not to do any damage, tries to leave them for others to study."

The more time I spend looking at the pile of scorched metal on the mountainside and listening to Fuller and the others, the more I see. Here is the throttle assembly. That's a control stick. There's a window frame, Plexiglas still hanging in shards.

Slowly the airplane comes to life. And with it comes the story of its last moments. The pilots had been trying to climb out of the canyon on the other side of the mountain when they must have clipped either rocks or trees on the ridge. That would've caused a stall. Peterson and Fuller, both pilots, find the rudder pedals jammed to one side, indicating the left wing had hit the slope first. A moment later, Peterson holds up a piece for inspection.

"Oh man," Fuller says, "nice chunk of instrument panel."

Eventually they find the metal remains of the seats. And what at first seemed to be just a collection of scrap becomes the end of a very human story about two men whose names are stenciled on a cross that very few will see. As we prepare to make our way back down the mountain, Fuller turns, face down, safe from the Arizona sun, pieces of aluminum bearing squadron markings "so the next guy who discovers this will have a chance to see them."


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