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Aircraft Wrecks That Will Take Your Breath Away

Dec. 05, 2018
11 min read
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Earlier this year, we reported how the melting ice had resurfaced the remains of an American C-53 military transport that crash-landed on a Swiss glacier in 1946.

On that occasion, all passengers and crew were accounted for, thanks to a daring rescue operation conducted by the Swiss Air Force. The airframe, though, was left in place, to be slowly swallowed by snow and ice. This is a fate that often befalls aircraft that go down in remote, inaccessible locations.

In quite a few cases, the wrecks are still recognizable, even after decades of exposure to the forces of nature. Many may even say they add a suggestive element to those undisturbed locations in the middle of nature.

From the Canadian tundra to the sands of the Sahara and the jungles of Papua New Guinea, we have compiled a list of some of the most remarkable aircraft wrecks around the world.

US Navy DC-3, Sólheimasandur, Iceland

Perhaps the most famous of all wrecks left in place, is that of the Douglas DC-3 on Iceland’s south coast.

This US Navy aircraft has been there since 1973, when it crash-landed after allegedly running out of fuel, although it was later discovered that a human error was most likely to blame.

As if the Icelandic landscape was short on drama, the washed up remains of the DC-3, standing in the middle of a flat volcanic black sand expanse, have become a major tourist attraction.

Although it lies on a rather deserted spot, it is possible to access the wreck relatively easily from Iceland’s ring road. The beach is located roughly 160 km (100 mi) from Reykjavik, near the island’s southernmost point. Some time ago it was even possible to drive all the way up to it. Access is now restricted, but you can find local tourist operators who will take you there. It's an hourlong hike to the wreck from the road.

Image courtesy of

Boeing 727 “Air Cocaine”, Tarkint, Mali

A bit more challenging would be to reach whatever is left of a Boeing 727s discovered in 2009 in the remote, lawless desert of Northern Mali.

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Details about the provenance of this aircraft and its owners remain murky; its story came to be known as the “Air Cocaine” incident. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the Boeing 727 transported cocaine from Venezuela to the west African country, landed on a makeshift airstrip and unloaded a cargo of illegal drugs before crashing as it tried to take off. It may also have been deliberately destroyed.

The wreck of a burnt-out Boeing 727 lies in the desert some 200 kilometres (125 miles) north of Gao in the northeast of the impoverished west African country on the southern edge of the Sahara on December 10, 2009. UN authorities said the plane transported cocaine from Venezuela to the west African country. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the Boeing 727 landed on a makeshift airstrip and unloaded a cargo of illegal drugs before crashing as it tried to take off. AFP PHOTO SERGE DANIEL (Photo credit should read SERGE DANIEL/AFP/Getty Images)
The wreck of the burnt-out Boeing 727 lies in the desert some 200 kilometres (125 miles) north of Gao in the northeast of the impoverished west African country of Mali on December 10, 2009.  (Photo by SERGE DANIEL/AFP/Getty Images)

The wreck is located in the municipality of Tarkint, Mali, but it is unclear whether anything of it remains in place, as locals have apparently been scavenging it in order to resell the aluminum.

It must be noted the US State Department has a “Do not travel” advisory for the whole of Mali, the strongest level of warning: "Do not travel to Mali due to crime and terrorism," the advisory flat-out states.

B-24D Liberator, Atka, Alaska

Picture in the public domain by Steve Hillebrand, US Fish and Wildlife Service

A relic of World War II, the wreck of this Liberator bomber, a victim of the Aleutian islands’ notoriously extreme weather, has been included in the National Register of Historic Places and in the WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument.

All crew members survived when the Liberator crash landed in 1942 on Atka, one of the westernmost spots in the Aleutians, a chain of islands that stretches for over 1,000 miles from the Alaskan mainland. As remote as Atka is, it can be reached by air, as local airline Grant Aviation operates a regular service from the Alaskan town of Dutch Harbor.

B-24D Liberator, Humphreys Peak, Arizona

Another wartime Liberator crash, although in this case with fatal consequences for the eight members of its crew.

More than seven decades after crashing into Humphrey’s Peak, the highest mountain in Arizona, most of the B-24 is still there, scattered over a rock field.

Arizona, Flagstaff, Snow-capped Humphrey's Peak. (Photo by: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)
Snow-capped Humphrey's Peak (Photo by Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)

To get there you would need to hike through Coconino National Forest, walking several miles up Humphrey's, which is at least a strenuous hike up to 12,633 ft. The area can be accessed from the town of Flagstaff, Arizona.

TWA Martin 404, New Mexico

Another mountainside crash in the Southwestern United States: TWA 260 went down on February 19th 1955 in New Mexico’s Sandia Mountains, killing all 16 onboard.

Some fragments of the aircraft, operating the short flight between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, New Mexico, have been preserved on the spot as a memorial.

The crash site is accessible after a 3.5 mile hike through Cibola National Forest, an easy spot to reach from Albuquerque, NM.

The Wrecks of the Big North

But if there is a place that seems quite prolific when it comes to aircraft wrecks, that is Northern Canada.

In earlier decades, when aircraft where far less reliable than today, many crash-landed while flying supply missions to far-flung outposts. Lost in the middle of the wilderness, they were left where they were, preserved by remoteness from looters or scavengers.

There are literally so many of them, scattered over the forest and tundras of Canada, that it is hard to keep track of them. Some enthusiast-run websites have done a great job of inventorying them.

Getting to see some of these wrecks is only within the reach of the most adventurous, though, since most lie hundreds of miles away from the nearest inhabited place.

A Douglas C-47D in Canada. This aircraft crashed in 1950. Image courtesy of
Curtiss C-46F Commando "Miss Piggy", Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. Image courtesy of

The Wrecks of the Big South

The Southern Pacific was the setting of some of the fiercest air battles of World War II. Bearing witness to that history are countless aircraft wrecks scattered all over many islands, in the jungle or underwater.

Boeing B-17E Flying Fortress, Papua New Guinea. Image courtesy of
Mitsubishi G4M "Betty" in the Solomon Islands. Image courtesy of

C-47, Northern Siberia

Some wrecks are eventually recovered. This is the case of a C-47, that, after several decades in the tundra of Northern Russia, just got a lot easier to visit. That is, if you travel all the way to Krasnoyarsk, a city in the middle of Siberia.

Passengers spent weeks surviving in the Soviet-operated C-47, sent to Russia as part of wartime lend-lease, after it crash-landed in 1947 while flying to Krasnoyarsk from a remote settlement in the Russian Arctic. Most of them were finally rescued after another aircraft managed to land next to it. Too late for the captain, two other crew members and six passengers who left on foot searching for help and never made it.

Such was the state of preservation of the wreck that when personnel and volunteers of the Russian Geographical Society arrived in 2016 in order to retrieve the wreck and take it to a museum, they found that some of the tires still had some air in them. Canned food and other items were also found where they were left more than 60 years ago.

The wreck was then meticulously disassembled, in an operation that took several weeks, and transported by river barge to the regional capital Krasnoyarsk, more than 1,500 miles upstream.

You can currently visit it at the Museum of the Exploration of the Russian North.

Image courtesy of Russian Geographical Society

Some wrecks remain shrouded in mystery...we know they are there, but only glimpses of them are revealed every now and then...

Avro Lancastrian “Stardust”, Mount Tupungato, Argentina

It was for decades an unresolved enigma.

Not even a year after the aforementioned incident of the C-53, an Avro Lancastrian operated by British South American Airlines vanished without trace when it was overflying the Andes on a flight from Buenos Aires to Santiago de Chile.

Adding to the enigma, as it was preparing for its approach to Santiago, the aircraft sent one last cryptic message, “STENDEC”, that remains unexplained to this day.

A Lancastrian airliner warming up at London Heathrow airport. 25/01/00: Trekkers climbing through the Andes mountains have discovered the remains of a British plane reported missing 53 years ago. Parts of the plane were found in near perfect condition. * a Lancaster reported missing in August of 1947, was in a frigid, high mountain area atop Tupungato mountain near the Argentina-Chile border, reported Uno, a daily newspaper. (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)
A Lancastrian airliner warming up at London Heathrow airport (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)

It took half a century for “Stardust” — the name given the plane by the airline — to resurface. In 1998 some of fragments, and some human remains, were uncovered, as the shifting glacier on Mount Tupungato, near the Argentina-Chile border, revealed some of its hidden contents. Only part of the aircraft has been recovered, though, and the expectation is that the glacier will continue spitting out fragments for years.

P-38 Lightning, Wales

Image courtesy of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery

And then, there is the P-38 Lightning wreck that appeared in 2007 on a Welsh beach.

The shifting tides and sand uncovered the remains of this 1942 American fighter. It was a short-lived appearance before the sand covered it again.

Long enough, though, for The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery to survey the wreck and take some impressive photographs.

The exact location of the Lightning remains secret to this day, though, waiting for the day when it can be recovered.

Featured image by PA Images via Getty Images