Crash Junkie

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

Chiricahua Mountains
Chiricahua Mountains Wikimedia Commons

We've been scratching and crawling our way up a canyon in Arizona's Chiricahua Mountains 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.

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."

Not everybody agrees with Fuller's approach. Many wreck chasers see no reason why they shouldn't grab an interesting piece of hardware from a site. Fuller says even the archaeological community has been slow to recognize the historical significance of crash sites, although the U.S. National Park Service has issued guidelines about respecting those on public land.

As we start to edge down the steep slope, one by one, Fuller lingers in a small clearing next to the wreck, taking it all in—the summer afternoon, the mountains, the plane—one last time. The rest of us are beat, but he seems reluctant to leave. "These sites are more than just spare parts on a mountainside," he says later. "They're part of our history. I hesitate to use the word sacred, but they're something close to that. I guess the feeling I have for them is reverence.

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