MILITARY

Hunting for hero fliers from lost era

Clayton Kuhles is bringing home legendary fliers who crashed in the rugged mountains between China and India. Photos courtesy of miarecoveries.org

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The mountainous region known as The Hump may contain as many as 700 WWII-era crash sites. Here, the wing of a C-109 bulk fuel transport plane appears in the dense jungle. This plane went down over the Hump on July 17, 1945.

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Clayton Kuhles has made eight trips to the region, hunting for planes and crewmen lost in the India-to-China airlift during World War II.

The terrain is breathtaking in its beauty, but also treacherous. In eight trips, Kuhles has located 22 crashes and positively identified 193 U.S. airmen who were previously classified as missing in action.

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Kuhles, who lives in Prescott, Ariz., is a self-described "professional adventurer" dedicated to honoring the memory of the men who flew dangerous missions over the Himalayas.

Using military records and tips from native tribesman, he hikes the rugged trails looking for the rusted fuselages of planes, including those flown by the legendary "Flying Tigers."

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The Zoot Chute was a B-24 bomber flown by American volunteers for the Chinese Air Force
Civil Air Transport.

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An unidentified pilot stands in front of the "Zoot Chute." It's not known what became of him.

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Crash sites are in some of the Earth's most remote regions, and the wreckage is often shrouded by the mountainous jungle.

Kuhles likens discovering wreckage, often containing human remains, as akin to stepping into an Egyptian tomb.

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The "Zoot Chute," with its distinctive Flying Tiger painted teeth, was one of the lucky planes that survived countless missions over the Hump.

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Lt. Robert King (rear, second from l.)was the pilot of the "Flub Dub," a B-24 which crashed in remote northeastern India on May 25, 1944. The U.S. Army launched two unsuccessful search expeditions in the late 1940s but the crash site went undetected until Kuhles came upon it on Dec. 7, 2010.

Kuhles found several human remains at the site and plans to return this year to recover them.  King's wife is still alive, according to Kuhles.

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Kuhles depends on locals to help him navigate trails and find his quaryy. Here, he returns the favor by milling rice for his guide's aunt in the village of Damroh, in northeastern India.

Four days later, Kuhles found the wreck of the B-24 "Hot as Hell."

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Kuhles embarked on his odyssey after learning of a crash site from a native tribesman in 2002. At his own expense, he has returned nearly every year.

High up in the Himalayas, Kuhles depends on the indigenous tribesmen for information and to help him navigate the treacherous mountain trails.

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James Browne was the co-pilot of a C-47 that went down in the mountains. Kuhles found the wreckage last fall.

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Capt. John Dean was piloting a transport plane loaded with tin ingots on a return trip to India from China when his wings iced over above the Himalayas' infamous hump. The plane crashed with one survivor. Kuhles located the crash last year.  

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The B-24 "Hot as Hell" disappeared on Jan. 25, 1944 while flying the Hump route. All men aboard were killed and listed as missing in action until Kuhles found the crash site on Dec. 7, 2006.

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Kuhles believes the "Hot as Hell" crash, like most crashes on the Hump route, was caused by extreme weather conditions and icing. "The accumulation of ice on the aircraft would cause an airplane to stall in midair and then drop out of the sky like a rock," he told FoxNews.com

Kuhles is still in touch with relatives of the crew, and hopes to return to recover human remains.

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The mountainous region that is home to so many crash sites are believed by natives to be populated by strange, ghostly forces. Sometimes, Kuhles' guides refuse to accompany him to the summit for fear of spirits.

The climate is rainy, and hot and humid during the day and cold and damp at night.

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To date, Kuhles has spent more than $100,000 of his own money on his missions. He accepts donations through his website, miarecoveries.org.

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Mountain snow has covered some wreckage for decades.

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Kuhles has braved malaria, Dengue fever and other hazards in his quest to locate crash sites. But he got the best of this Russell's viper, a deadly species whose bite can bring death from kidney, respiratory or cardiac failure within a day.

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Kuhles has barely made a dent in the number of plane crash sites believed to be hidden in the Himalayas. He plans to return later this year.

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The so-called "Hump Airmen" flew more than 150,000 trips to China to supply nationalist forces fighting the Japanese. The rough and tumble men who manned the planes earned reputations for fearlessness. 

They had no reliable charts, little weather data, and braved 125-to-200 mph winds. Hundreds perished in the no-man's land where only Clayton Kuhles and a few others dare go.

Hunting for hero fliers from lost era

Clayton Kuhles is bringing home legendary fliers who crashed in the rugged mountains between China and India. Photos courtesy of miarecoveries.org

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