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Historic warbird sunk in Tanana River nearly half-century ago finds a savior

Colleen Mondor
Aviator and history buff Patrick Mihalek has spent countless hours coordinating the rescue of a B-25J Mitchell bomber, a WWII-era military plane from the Tanana River in Interior Alaska.
Courtesy Patrick Mihalek
Aviator and history buff Patrick Mihalek has spent countless hours coordinating the rescue of a B-25J Mitchell bomber, a WWII-era military plane from the Tanana River in Interior Alaska.
Courtesy Patrick Mihalek
Aviator and history buff Patrick Mihalek has spent countless hours coordinating the rescue of a B-25J Mitchell bomber, a WWII-era military plane from the Tanana River in Interior Alaska.
Courtesy Patrick Mihalek
Aviator and history buff Patrick Mihalek has spent countless hours coordinating the rescue of a B-25J Mitchell bomber, a WWII-era military plane from the Tanana River in Interior Alaska.
Courtesy Patrick Mihalek
Aviator and history buff Patrick Mihalek has spent countless hours coordinating the rescue of a B-25J Mitchell bomber, a WWII-era military plane from the Tanana River in Interior Alaska.
Courtesy Patrick Mihalek
Aviator and history buff Patrick Mihalek has spent countless hours coordinating the rescue of a B-25J Mitchell bomber, a WWII-era military plane from the Tanana River in Interior Alaska.
Courtesy Patrick Mihalek
Aviator and history buff Patrick Mihalek has spent countless hours coordinating the rescue of a B-25J Mitchell bomber, a WWII-era military plane from the Tanana River in Interior Alaska.
Courtesy Patrick Mihalek
Aviator and history buff Patrick Mihalek has spent countless hours coordinating the rescue of a B-25J Mitchell bomber, a WWII-era military plane from the Tanana River in Interior Alaska.
Courtesy Patrick Mihalek

For more than a decade, Michigan resident Patrick Mihalek has dreamed about recovering a B25 Mitchell bomber from a sandbar in the Tanana River. The so-called "Sandbar Mitchell" was forced down after an engine failure in 1969 when flying for the fire service. Mihalek, who has been obsessed with B25s "forever" and spent countless hours as a teenager on the Internet researching them, has put together a team of volunteers on a shoestring budget to recover this relic. They plan to be on the river from June 22 to July 2 to prepare the wreckage for transport to the Lower 48. Ultimately, it will be completely rebuilt and serve as the centerpiece in the new Warbirds of Glory Air Museum.

The Sandbar Mitchell was purchased as surplus at a rock-bottom price from the Air Force in the late 1950s. Its military service over, the new owner retrofit the aircraft for fire suppression. In 1969, while fighting a fire in Manley Hot Springs, it suffered a double-engine failure after takeoff from Fairbanks. The pilot successfully landed it on a sandbar in the Tanana north of town and the engines, propellers and instruments were quickly removed. The rest of the aircraft remained, however, as it was not worth the recovery cost. (B25s were so cheap then, it was uninsured.) Vandalized and damaged over the years, it served primarily as a highly recognized landmark, particularly for pilots. No one has made any notable attempt to recover the Sandbar Mitchell until now.

Mihalek has purchased the aircraft from the owner's family, obtaining its registration and also collecting the necessary permits for its salvage from the State of Alaska and Fort Wainwright. He already has the nose section of another B25, which he obtained years earlier, and plans to utilize as much of the Sandbar Mitchell as possible. "It is," he notes, "in much better condition than I imagined after being abandoned for so many years."

With partner Tim Trainor, who operates the Aeronca Aircraft History Museum out of his hangar in a residential airpark where the B25 will be restored, Mihalek is uniquely qualified to recover and rebuild the aircraft. He has a degree in aviation and is a licensed A&P mechanic. Both men see this effort as a valuable opportunity to reintroduce skilled trades to a younger generation. "People will be able to come by the hangar and see the work we are doing here," says Mihalek, "especially kids. It's important that they see why this work matters before the skills die off." The B25 has a natural appeal for any aircraft aficionado regardless of age, and Mihalek and Trainor seem determined to nurture that interest as they work to bring the Sandbar Mitchell back from the dead.

"There are only about 20 of these aircraft flying in the U.S. today," says Mihalek, which is a far cry from when they could be purchased for as little as $5,000 after the war. "It's just such a handsome aircraft; it's really something special." Close to taking a significant step toward achieving his lifelong dream, Mihalek can hardly contain his excitement. "We have a team of volunteers and we've gotten a lot of help from Alaskans.  We're looking forward to heading out to the river and getting it ready to go."

The Sandbar Mitchell is not the first former military aircraft recovered from Alaska. In 2011 a team from the Champaign Aviation Museum in Ohio removed a B-17 that crashed north of Talkeenta in 1951 to use for parts and in 1996 professional aircraft salvor Gary Larkins and his group, called the "Air Pirates," removed a B-17 near Ruby that was later incorporated into the aircraft "My Gal Sal". It is now fully restored and on display at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

Without the support of a large established museum, Mihalek and Trainor are very dependent on volunteers and donations. They are still hoping for the donation of an airlift service to assist them in transporting large pieces of the plane to private land nearby that has been made available to them as a staging area. Without it, they will have to wait for winter to haul the larger pieces out on the ice. Regardless of how much more assistance comes through, however, Mihalek is determined to get the Sandbar Mitchell ready to go in June.

"Our goal is to get this aircraft back in airworthy condition and fly it again and the nose art will reflect its Alaskan name. This B25 is going to always be known as the Sandbar Mitchell," he says. "We'll never forget how much Alaska was a part of its history."

Donate or volunteer

If you're interested in donating or volunteering, you can contact Patrick Mihalek by visiting the website devoted to the Sandbar Mitchell project. You can also read more about the project and see some photos of the legendary B25.

Contact Colleen Mondor at colleen(at)alaskadispatch.com