The ‘Warbird Finder’: Recovering Lost Planes

Ever wonder where some WWII warbirds ‘resurface’ after decades missing in action? Learn the story of one particular airplane pulled out of a freshwater lake, courtesy of Ian Chalkley...

AvBuyer  |  07th December 2021
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    Military aircraft being recovered from lake

    Ever wonder where some of the WWII aircraft resurface years and years after being lost in action? Ian Chalkley explores...

    Like a tale from an Indiana Jones movie, a number of warbirds lie untouched in some of the remotest areas of the world. Some are locked away in ice. Some are seasonal, appearing in the spring before getting swallowed by winter. Some are hiding in plain site, but there’s no one around to see them. But they all have a story to tell.

    Take the P39 ‘Airacobra’ pictured below. Built by Bell as a P-39Q (no. 44-2911) at Bell’s plant in Buffalo, New York. It was completed on 23rd November 1943. Just a few weeks later, on Christmas Day, its maintenance log shows it left the plant on the first leg of its long journey to the Soviet Union under one of many Lend-Lease agreements of the time. It reached Fairbanks, Alaska on 9th January 1944. Some 3,000 miles already flown.

    On 1st February, its Soviet pilot arrived to collect the aircraft. After a brief stop on some last US soil in Nome, Alaska, it was flown across the Bering Strait into the Soviet Union. Onward it flew a further 3,000 miles to its eventual base near Mumansk, Russia. Somewhere on this route it was assigned its military number ‘White 23’ and this along with its Russian markings were added to the livery (painted over the top of its US markings). 

    The aircraft was one of 2,565 P-39 Airacobras that followed the same route to World War II's Eastern Front. But this is the only one that made it right back to where it started.

    On 19th November 1944, 22-year-old Lieutenant Ivan Baranovsky, a combat veteran, departed his Russian base to fly the airplane with his squadron to the recently captured air base at Luostari, near the Norwegian border. But part way into the flight the aircraft broke from formation, disappeared down into cloud, and was never heard from again. No mayday call, no news, no clues. Lost!


    Skip forward almost 60 years. During the recovery of a crashed WWII fighter from a fresh water lake in ‘The middle of nowhere,’ a fisherman rowed his boat over to the recovery team and asked if they were going to pick up the other one while they were there. 

    The team looked at each other, nodded and said “sure”. For just a little further over, sitting on the lake-bed covered in heavy silt, ‘White 23’ waited in hibernation, untouched and unseen for six decades. 

    Using floatation bags, the aircraft was raised carefully to the surface and floated to the shore. Inside the aircraft they found some remains of the pilot, two medals (the Glory Order III Degree and Military Order of the Red Banner), some shoes, the aircraft logbook, and 11 small cans of food that had been stashed in the ammunition bays (labelled ‘made in USA’).

    “Missing for 60 years and soon after the recovery on 6th October 2004, the pilot was buried with full military honours at the Glory Valley Memorial, near the Litza Valley, North West of Murmansk. Finally some closure on his disappearance.”

    The aircraft was moved to the UK for inspection. Having been in fresh water, the aircraft was in remarkably good condition. It had evidence of earlier combat damage with a number of bullet holes from previous missions, but the reason for the aircraft dropping out of formation was finally learned, for there were two large holes in the engine block. It transpires that the engine had thrown two rods, forcing him to make a belly landing on a frozen Lake.

    Baranovsky obviously did a pretty good job of putting it down on the ice, as the leading edges and belly of the aircraft were hardly bruised at all. Strangely it was the trailing edges and flaps that suffered the most damage. They had been bent and pushed ‘up’. 

    It is thought that the aircraft came to rest on the ice, and for reasons unknown the pilot didn’t climb out. The aircraft sank when the ice eventually thawed.

    With the engine on the P39 sitting behind the cockpit, the aircraft slipped backwards and down as it broke through the ice once it was no longer thick enough to support the weight of the aircraft. This pushed the thinner trailing edges and flight control surfaces up, bending them as the ice broke around it, allowing the aircraft to sink into the depths below.

    Also evident after recovery were the incredibly clear aircraft markings. The paint was in remarkable condition with bright colorization. You could clearly see the Russian star painted over the US star. And if you think that’s amazing, wait till you hear that the inner tubes were still full of air! The Aircraft was a time capsule! How do I know? I was there when she was unloaded in the UK.

    New Beginnings

    A few years later, in 2008, a director of the Niagara Airspace Museum by the name of Hugh Neeson heard about the aircraft. He came to the UK and inspected the P39 and put together an acquisition plan to bring the aircraft “back home”. Amazingly the Museum is located just 650 metres from the Bell production facility hangar doors that ‘White 23’ first rolled out of in late 1943.

    The aircraft is now the centre piece of the museum and as she stands today resides at a distance that can literally be measured in metres from where she was first assembled. 

    Since the aircraft left, it has flown some 7,000 miles to the Eastern Front, crash landed in the Russian Arctic Circle, travelled west to the UK following recovery, then travelled west again, via ship and road, back to Buffalo. The aircraft has completely circumnavigated planet Earth!

    Mr. Neeson made a decision to present the aircraft in its recovered condition. That is to say, rather than restore it, the aircraft remains ‘frozen in time’ and can be found today exactly as she was left on her last ever flight. The exhibit includes a tribute to the lend-lease programme of WWII (the museum has named the aircraft ‘Miss Lend Lease’) along with a tribute to the pilot Lieutenant Ivan Baranovsky and the women that built her (and many others).

    The Ladies that Built Her

    During close inspection of the aircraft Mr. Neeson was reminded that the women who built these often used to write their names and good luck messages for future pilots to find. Sure enough, the museum conservators found two names written on some interior panels: Helen Rose and Eleanor Barbaritano.

    Sandra Hierl, the daughter of the late Eleanor Barbaritano, was contacted by the museum and invited to come and see her mum’s plane. Miss Barbaritano was just 19 when she worked at the Bell production facility. Mrs Hiel remarked that her mum had told her about the girls writing their names and addresses on some aircraft panels and added “ and then a pilot would write to one of the women and thank them for the good work they’d done.”

    Every Aircraft has a Story!

    The man who recovered the aircraft out the lake was my late grandfather, Jim Pearce. A well-known ‘Warbird Finder’ having over 50 recoveries credited to his name. And trust me, every aircraft has a story.

    This is just one! But this one stands out to me for the fact it went full circle; the fact it solved a mystery that was decades old; the ripples following its recovery that reconnected with the pilot’s family and the relatives of the young women who built the aircraft; and the fact it’s on display in an amazing ‘as it was found’ exhibit just a very short walk from where it was first pushed out the door.

    I was lucky enough to visit the brilliant Niagara Airspace Museum myself just a few years ago. If ever you find yourself not too far away (I made a 16-hour round trip to drive up from Connecticut to visit), I thoroughly recommend it. It’s an amazing museum and I was gobsmacked to learn about the local history, for the seeds of aviation itself came to root very firmly here.

    In 1916 the Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor Company was formed, which in 1929 evolved into the Curtiss-Wright Corporation (as in ‘the Wright Brothers’). By the end of WWII it was the largest manufacturer of aircraft in America. And if that wasn’t enough, another big name to come out of Buffalo was the Bell Aircraft Corporation. So back in the day, if you were into aviation, what a place to be! All that, and they have a really great water feature just up the road too! Honestly – go visit!

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