By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
Off he went, flying with the 46th Reconnaissance Squadron over the North Pole, conducting some of the first spy missions of the Cold War. To the public, Lucky and his crew were testing equipment. In reality, they were scouting the Soviet border for secret bases. "Oh, we had a couple of [Soviet planes] on our wingtips once or twice," he says, sucking his teeth. "Nothing too dramatic."
In December 1946, Lucky guesses, he earned his nickname. He was piloting a B-29 through heavy ice and fog, lost two engines and crash-landed in a field, barely scrambling away before the plane burned. One of the crew members snapped a photo of the charred flight cabin. "Boy," he said. "You're lucky."
The name stuck.
"In front of us we had 64-below weather, and behind us we had a 500-degree inferno," Lucky remembers. "There were some broken bones, but no one got killed. I was black-and-blue. Nothing to complain about. We went back to the barracks, changed clothes and went to a bar."
Two months later they crash-landed again.
Shortly after midnight on February 21, 1947, a B-29 set out from Ladd Field in Fairbanks, Alaska, for an eighteen-hour circle flight to the North Pole. The plane was nicknamed "Kee Bird," after a mythical creature that stays in the cold weather while smarter birds fly south.
The crew was testing a gyroscope navigation system. Lucky was the flight engineer. This mission, like the others, was secret. Radio silence was crucial. Once the crew left the base, no one knew exactly where they were.
The plane rounded the North Pole, conducted its test and turned back. As it did, a heavy storm hit. Then the crew saw something they didn't expect.
"We picked up land before we were supposed to pick up land," Lucky says. "We couldn't identify it. We had no reason to run into land yet."
Lucky thinks the gyro must have malfunctioned; others suggest the plane was misdirected by bogus Soviet radio signals. Whatever it was, the crew couldn't determine their position. They tried to read the stars, but the plane couldn't rise above the thick cloud cover. The crew circled over what was then uncharted Greenland, lost.
"We didn't know where we were," Lucky says. "We thought we were in Russia. We couldn't find a place to sit down. There ain't any smooth places up there. We were running out of light. We had to land."
Eventually the pilot spotted a frozen lake, and the plane skidded on its belly 800 feet along the ice before coming to a stop near the shore. Miraculously, the plane didn't spin out or burn, and no one was hurt. One of the crew members knelt on the ice and made the sign of the cross.
The temperature was 49 degrees below zero. Lucky and the other ten men dragged supplies from the plane, pitched makeshift tents and huddled in sleeping bags. They took turns draining gas from the Kee Bird, keeping a fire going, melting snow for drinking water and maintaining the generator and radio. A few men climbed a nearby hill and discharged flares, but the signals didn't shoot high enough.
"We didn't have any cards. We didn't have any booze. There wasn't much to do," Lucky says, "except survive."
When the clouds dissipated, the navigator determined their position from the stars, give or take 500 miles, and transmitted a coded message to base. The Ladd Field radio operator asked, "What are you guys doing in Greenland?" A crewman responded, "We came down to shoot a few polar bears."
Then they waited.
At that time of year, darkness lasts eighteen hours at the polar ice cap. Lucky and the others hunkered down in flight suits, parkas and mukluks. Their only food: the K rations of canned pork loaf and crackers. Lucky went hunting once, but he didn't find anything more than the remains of a rabbit.
"There wasn't anything alive out there that I could find," he says.
Eight planes searched for the Kee Bird. When the wreck was found, rescuers dropped a load of supplies, including a girlie calendar from a Fairbanks bar.
Three days after the crash, a C-54 transport plane slid along the frozen lake and gathered up the Kee Bird crew. The rescue earned the team captain a personal commendation from President Harry S. Truman.
The Kee Bird was left behind, with broken wheels, bent propellers and no fuel.
His spy days done, Lucky lived in El Paso, flying Air Force C-54 cargo planes, working as a flight instructor and settling into married life, raising two sons and two daughters. In 1961 he moved to Denver; three years later he retired from the service.
On a lark, he joined a friend in the salvage business and went to work closing Safeways, Albertsons and ice-skating rinks. Somewhere along the way, he discovered an interest in blowing up buildings.
"Wherever you see a new building downtown, there used to be an old one," he says. "We did them all."
Lucky holds up a framed photo of the Swiss Packing Plant crumbling in on itself in a cloud of dust.