After Trekking Miles, Man Finds Plane That Was Missing 68 Years

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David Tallichet is a United States Army Vet turned restauranteur. During his time in the Army, he was a pilot. This experience led him to have a strong fascination with aviation and planes. With his restaurant fortune, he was able to invest in his interests. He explored the world to find and collect vintage airplanes. However, he was never expecting to find one so astonishing.

Meet David


David Compton Tallichet Jr. was born in 1922, in Dallas, Texas. He went to college and graduated with a degree in English. However, when the United States entered combat in World War II, he joined the military. He was deployed to Europe and began flying as co-pilot on a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress. His aircraft was called the Spirit of Pittwood.

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Fascination With Planes


During his time as a co-pilot, David flew in over 20 missions. After the Axis powers surrender, David remained in Europe and helped fly aircrafts on missions supporting the rebuilding of the war-torn countries. Upon return to the U.S., he joined the New Mexico Air National Guard. While in the national guard he flew a P-51 Mustang.

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Begins To Build His Fortune


Tallichet remained as an active reservist for the U.S. Air Force until 1957. However, shortly before, his end of active duty, he joined Hilton Hotels. In 1995, he managed the Lafayette Hotel in Long Beach, California. At the time the hotel hosted the Miss Universe pageant. David hit it off with one of the contestants, Miss Indiana. They later married.

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Enters Restaurant Industry


In 1958, Tallichet partnered with SeaWorld founder, George Millay, to create the Specialty Restaurants Corporation. The corporation focused on destination-restaurants that were themed. Their first restaurant was a Polynesian-themed reef in long Beach, California and their second was Castaway in Burbank, California. Some of Tallichet’s aviation interest can be seen in some of his restaurants including the Proud Bird (groundbreaking pictured) adjacent to Los Angeles International Airport, and 94th Aero Squadron near Van Nuys Airport.

Proud Bird

Forms The Military Aircraft Restoration


After a trip to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in the 1960s, Tallichet decided it was time to start a vintage aircraft collection. His first few purchases were a P-51 Mustang,  B-25 Mitchell bomber, Korean War MiG jet, P-40 Tomahawk, B-29 bomber, and a Martin B-26 Marauder. He created the Military Aircraft Restoration Corporation (MARC) in order to manage and maintain his collection.

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Search For More Planes


With his fortune from the restaurant business, Tallichet was able to invest massive amounts of money into his interest. Therefore, when the opportunity to unearth a plane that had been dubbed the “single most important unrecovered World War II aerial-combat artifact” he jumped on in. His mission would take him to Papua New Guinea.

David Tallichet

The Search Begins


Tallichet put together a group of skilled explorers, including an aircraft salvage expert named Alfred Hagen, in order to search through the vast swamplands of Papau New Guinea in order to find this plane. Tallichet was the not the first to attempt this mission. In the late 1980s, a group called The International Group For Historic Aircraft Recovery wanted to find and bring the plane back to the U.S. However, it faced retaliation by the Papua New Guinea government. Tallichet was determined to succeed.

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A Shocking Discovery


After searching the miles of swampland, Tallichet and his crew were able to find the plane. The B-17 had been forgotten about for many years and was overgrown with grass. However, due to its locations, the B-17 Flying Fortress had remained very well preserved. As they entered their discovery, the preservation was astounding and took them a step back in time.

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The History Of The Plane


The plane discovered was flown in World War II. On February 22, 1942 the plane took off to participate in the U.S. Army Air Force’s first ever bombing mission in the South Pacific. It was being piloted by Captain Fred C. Eaton, Jr. and Captain Henry M. “Hotfoot” Harlow. This would be the B-17’s first and only combat mission.

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The Mission


The mission of the B-17 Flying Fortress was to fly from its airfield in Australia and bomb Japanese shipping in Simpson Harbor. Eaton (pictured) originally missed his target and had to make a second pass. But, on his second try the crew was successful. However, during their second pass an anti-aircraft shell had passed through the right wing. Although it didn’t explode, it created a large hole.

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Intercepted By Japanese Fighters


On the return back to Australia, the planes were intercepted by Japanese fighter planes. The plane was hit again in the tail section by a Japanese 7.7mm machine gun and 20mm cannon fire. However, the skilled pilots were able to maneuver themselves out of trouble, and hoped to get back to Australia safely.

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Crash Landing


Unfortunately, even though the plane had gotten out of the battle, there was more trouble on the horizon. Ironically, it was not the damage that cause the plane to crash, but rather a shortage on fuel. Eaton made a quick decision and as they approached the north coast of New Guinea, he was able to force a landing wheels up. He thought he would land on dry ground, however, he landed in swampy grassland, which today is known as the Agaimbo Swamp.

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The Engineer Recalls The Crash


Clarence LeMieux (pictured) was the engineer on the B-17. He told Smithsonian Magazine “I looked over at the fuel gauges, and they were pretty damn low. I said: ‘We’re not going to make it with this fuel.’ We saw what looked like a wheat field—all this pretty grass—and Fred [Eaton] says, ‘Let’s put her down here.’ ” He also recalled it was almost a perfect landing, as only the propellers were bent.

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Crew Survived


Luckily, Eaton, Harlow, and the other 8 crew members (most pictured) all survived the crash. Before departing, one of the members removed the top secret Norden bomb sight, but left the rest of the B-17 intact. The crew walked for days and suffered from heat exhaustion and fatigue. Not to mention, they were getting eaten alive by mosquitos. But, they kept moving in order to survive.

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A Walk To Survival


The crew walked to for two days, hacking the razor sharp grass that was in their way. They had run out of their emergency rations and were famished. They even began to hallucinate. The bombardier on the plane, Richard Oliver (pictured), told Smithsonian Magazine “A friend and I suddenly saw a mess hall. So we decided to get some ice-cold canned tomatoes. We could see the lights up ahead, and we headed off down the path to reach it, when, luckily, somebody yelled at us and woke us up.”

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Rescued

Eventually, the crew ran into a Papuan native chopping wood. The native realized how distressed the crewmen were and took them to his village. They were given food and shelter. After being handed over to the Australian resident magistrate, they were picked up by a U.S. military boat to return back to base. They arrived at the base 36 days after the crash.

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A Forgotten Fortress

After a one week recovery in the hospital, the crewmen were sent back to combat. The B-17 remained in the swamp where it had crash landed. Throughout the war, the plane was flown over by many allied forces, including the former pilot, Eaton. Eaton would relay his survival tale to his crew as he would fly above the crashed plane. However, there was never a rescue mission for the plane and the B-17 flying fortress was slowly forgotten.

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A Rediscovery


The plane remained in its swampy grave for decades. Until 1972, a helicopter from the Royal Australian Air Force was conducting exercises, and spotted the abandoned bomber. Troops went down to inspect the discovery. They found the interior equipment was prewar U. S. Army Air Corps issue, but somehow in remarkable condition. Unfortunately, after rediscovery people began visiting the crash site and slowly started taking equipment from the inside. This would not stand.

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The Swamp Ghost


The new discovery was eventually nicknamed “The Swamp Ghost.” The nickname was given to the plane by visitors as it was nearly impossible to find, as though it disappeared, in the wet season due to high grass and swamp waters. The Swamp Ghost was featured in the National Geographic Magazine in 1992. The publication caused aircraft recovery groups to jump into action.

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Enter Tallichet & His Team


One attempt to excavate the plane was made in the 1980s, by the The International Group For Historic Aircraft Recovery. However, their attempt was unsuccessful. When Tallichet heard this, he knew he was the man for the job. In the late ’90s, the warbird collector paid $100,000 for a license to export the plane. Along with his aircraft salvage expert, Alfred Hagen, he began the recovery.

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Slow Take-Off


Unfortunately, the process took much more time and work than Tallichet ever expected. There were many stalls and delays. Therefore, in 2001, he handed the project over to his trusted companion, Alfred Hagen. Hagen gladly accepted. But, it was years later till he was able to complete the job.

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Hagen Returns


It was not until 2006 that Hagen was able to make his way back to crash site to continue the job Tallichet had bestowed upon him. The flying fortress had to be carefully disassembled. They cut off the wings, engines and tail stabilizers. The “rescue crew” hired an MI-8 helicopter, and the parts were flown to the coast and loaded on a barge. The parts were taken to Lae on the north coast of New Guinea.

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Stuck In Lae-bo


When one is stuck in limbo, it means one is in an intermediate or transitional state. The famed B-17 flying fortress was definitely stuck in limbo once it arrived in Lae. When word got out the Hagen had transported the plane to Lae and would soon be taking it to the U.S., Papua New Guineans got angry. They considered the wreck to be a national treasure and seized it from Hagen and his crew. 

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Natives Felt Betrayed


Many native Papuans have a strong connection to their ancestral lands. Therefore, anything that is a part of or on their land is seen as their property. Augustin Begasi, the son of a chief of a local village, even organized a group to try to intercept the plane before it was taken to a barge offshore. They were stopped by police. Begasi told Smithsonian Magazine “They should have given us money, because it was our accustomed land. The plane would bring tourists, but now there is nothing.”

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Release from Lae


The Papua New Guinea government had claimed the salvaging was illegal. In order to have the ruling overturned, Hagen agreed to pay the government $115,000 plus other demands. The exact deal was never published to the public. The B-17 had been there since May 2006, and it was finally headed home in January 2010.

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It Took 68 Years


From the time the warbird left the United States to its return, it had been 68 years! Unfortunately, Tallichet was not there to see its return. Tallichet had lost his battle with cancer in 2007. However, Hagen remembered how important this was to his fearless leader.

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Unveiling Ceremony


In order to honor Tallichet and his commitment to getting the “Swamp Ghost” back in its home country, Hagen hosted an unveiling ceremony (pictured), of the fuselage, at one of his first restaurants, the Reef Restaurant at Long Beach. The event was attended by Tallichet’s son, David, children of 3 of the original crew members as well as Hagen.

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Return To Glory


The Swamp Ghost was not immediately reassembled, but all of its parts were transferred into storage at Chino Airport. It was temporarily displayed at Chino California’s Planes of Fame Museum, from December 2010 until January 2013. It was only a short time later that the plane found a permanent home.

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Welcome Home


Soon after the unveiling, museums around the country began negotiations to acquire the plane. The Pacific Aviation Museum Pearl Harbor entered those negotiations and won. On April 2, 2013, the warbird arrived in Honolulu Harbor. The harbor was very close to the spot where she had left the United States 72 years prior. The plane had returned home to where it belonged.

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Finally Displayed


Since late 2013, the B-17 was reassembled and put on displayed at the Pacific Aviation Museum outdoors adjacent to hanger 79. However, in order to preserve the plane it was moved indoors, in 2015. The museum is constantly working to update the display and keeping the plane in the best condition possible. You can donate to the Swamp Ghost’s preservation through the museum website.

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