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Should Wrecks Be Recovered?

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Whenever I hear about efforts to recover the wreck of an airplane, it always reminds me of the Titanic. In the years since the Titanic was found, it's been visited numerous times, and salvagers have taken away parts of the wreckage, much to the dismay of ocean explorer Bob Ballard, who first located it. The ship should be left in peace, Ballard argues, and if that means it will eventually decay and be lost, that's okay. Others argue that if anything can be recovered from the seabed and preserved, that's the right thing to do.

The latest aviation wreck to be targeted for recovery is a TBD Devastator, off the coast of San Diego. The National Museum of Naval Aviation wants it for their collection, and they're trying to raise $300,000 just to get the wreck to shore, and it will surely cost hundreds of thousands more to restore it for static display. Underwater video of the wreck, shot by a remotely operated camera, shows fish making themselves at home in the cockpit, and a fuselage covered in barnacles. The Devastator was lost in a training accident and the pilot was rescued, so it's not a gravesite, in the way the Titanic is. Still, the old wreck looks at peace in its resting place at the bottom of the sea, and it seems a shame to disturb it.

I can understand the motivations of the preservationists who see the airplane as a connection to the military flyers of the past, and its restoration as a way to honor them. But if the goal is to remember the airplane, and those who flew it, is recovering this wreck the best way to do that? Why not leave it where it is, explore it in detail with video, maybe install a remote camera so it can be viewed from the museum? Or is the experience of having the actual airplane in a museum, where people can touch it and examine it in detail, crucial to preserving its history? I can see both sides, but if was up to me, I'd leave the wrecks alone and invest in creative storytelling and video to bring the past to life.

Comments (34)

Creative storytelling and videos are OK for the History Channel, but museums are built for artifacts. No one would visit the Smithsonian or the Air & Space museum if all they had displayed were looped videos...

Posted by: Mark Fraser | March 10, 2011 1:01 PM    Report this comment

I'm with Mark on some level. At the same time, though, when they recover these planes there's usually so little left that's still useable, even for a static display, nevermind a flying example, that they might as well just build a replica from scratch. Any metal is going to be heavilly corroded, anything organic (seat covers, wood, etc) will be totally gone and so on. Maybe the instruments and glass can be cleaned up enough for a static display plane.

Posted by: Andrew Upson | March 10, 2011 3:13 PM    Report this comment

Here is a good reason for salvage: There are no flying or display TBD Devastator examples anywhere in the world. According to Ed Ellis (who heads aircraft restorations at the museum) "It's the 'holy grail' in terms of naval aviation, and something we'd like to have in this museum"

Posted by: Mark Fraser | March 11, 2011 12:32 AM    Report this comment

There were so many aviation gems scrapped, left to rot and otherwise ignored, from negligence to pure idiocy. (Just think about all the DH Mosquitos teared apart for balsa in early 50's by f***g Commies in Czechoslovakia due to being "from the West"). There is a number of TBD's left to rot around Midway, so rasisng this one and putting it on display is just s right thing to do. Keep it for future generations, that's what does not happen if we leave it underwater.

Posted by: Jiri Hubka | March 11, 2011 3:40 AM    Report this comment

If this airplane will end up on display in the pristine condition that the National Museum of Naval Aviation is known for, I can't imagine leaving it on the bottom, especially when only a handful of people alive have ever seen a Devastator.

Posted by: Ryan Lunde | March 11, 2011 2:32 PM    Report this comment

Who hacked Marks account and wrote something sensible?

Posted by: Grant Carruthers | March 13, 2011 3:40 PM    Report this comment

Beauty lies is in the eye of the beholder, and if someone is inclined and has the means to recover and restore a wrecked aircraft then I fully support their initiative.

Posted by: William Kossowan | March 14, 2011 6:48 AM    Report this comment

300K or 300 million dollars isn't to much for the recovery of a TBD! The TBD is an iconic aircraft in the history of American naval aviation. Much like the F2A Buffalo, the Devastator has been maligned as a death trap but given the proper cover, it did well in all of it's combats leading up to the events of June 4, 1942. This TBD as well as the one off of Jaluit should be recovered and used to restore at least one to display status. If for no other reason than to remind the American public of the price involved in sending our young people into battle with equipment that is less than state of the art. The memories of John Waldron, Eugene Lindsey, Lance Massey and all the men who followed them into battle at Midway knowing full well the odds were against them, demands nothing less.

Posted by: Scott McGowin | March 14, 2011 9:42 AM    Report this comment

And just a small correction to Juri's post, the 35 TBDs lost in combat at Midway are not "left to rot around Midway". They lay in 17,000 feet of water some 200 miles northwest of the atoll and other than the one still hanging in the hangar deck of the sunken Yorktown, no one has seen any of them since. Of the time I spent on Midway back in 97-98, the only known WW-2 aircraft near the atoll is a "birdcage" F4U Corsair laying on it's back in about 150 feet of water just outside of the reef. I got to play with some of the .50cal rounds brought up by one of the dive masters before "sheriff Bob" confiscated them... :-)

Posted by: Scott McGowin | March 14, 2011 9:52 AM    Report this comment

Keep it where it is. Use the $300,000 to build a replica (it does not have to fly) to display in the museum with, if you must, a video of the real aircraft at the bottom of the sea. Apart from anything else, deep water diving is much more dangerous than flying and we would not want to have a death or a cripple on our hands, would we?

Posted by: Brian McCulloch | March 14, 2011 10:14 AM    Report this comment

For the record, the Naval Museum displays of two recovered aircraft recovered from Lake Michigan are not "hands on" displays, as most of the aircraft are. They are presented in a darkened room, simulating their underwater grave. They are not restored, but are preserved as they were found. (Plans to actually install a water tank were scrapped due to cost).

A couple of pictures here:

http://tinyurl.com/NMNA_underwater

simply do not do the display justice. I would love to see the TBD join the Dauntless and the Wildcat.

Posted by: Rush Strong | March 14, 2011 11:12 AM    Report this comment

Taking the long view, what is really served by allowing the wrecks to "return to dust"?

Having made several dive trips to Truk Lagoon over the years I have noted the not-so-gradual deterioration of the WW-II ships there; as years pass there will eventually be little to see.

Obviously it would not be practical to preserve those particular pieces of history but if you could, why not? If it is the memory of those who died that is the important factor, would not preserving the artifact honor them more than letting it crumble to nothing?

Posted by: John Wilson | March 14, 2011 12:51 PM    Report this comment

As a kid, I was taken to the Viking Ship Museum in Norway. They had a large presentation about the recovery and preservation efforts to place the ships on display (before the day of videos). A very impressive exhibit, and one I remember clearly even today. And the museum in Cairo, where all the mummys were displayed, and the various treasures from the tombs - how would we know anything about those times without recovering the artifacts?

Yet do "modern" aircraft lost in the sea/swamp/icecap have the same status as ancient artifacts? What has anyone to gain that can not be achieved without disturbing what's there?

I think Brian has the correct idea: use the funds to fabricate the same aircraft using the original documentation. (And if you had the data plate, and affixed it to the "reconstruction" wouldn't you have a "reconditioned" aircraft?) Get together with several interested museums and build several for better economy. Build a few extra and auction them off - great museum fund raiser!

Seriously - unless there is some great archaeological purpose - let modern history lay where it has fallen.

Posted by: JT McDuffie | March 14, 2011 1:50 PM    Report this comment

Each situation re "wrecks" is unique and should be assessed that way. Let the people who know determine the feasibility. But I do not support the "just leave it there regardless of the details". If that was the case, very few people would have seen the P-38 that was frozen in the glacier, for example.

Now I will through the cat among the pigeoen with a more controversial thought. There should be very serious consideration given to whether or not a warbird that has been restored to a certified flying condition should be flown. I think the reasons are obvious.

Posted by: David Ellis | March 14, 2011 2:12 PM    Report this comment

Re Mary Grady's "Or is the experience of having the actual airplane in a museum, WHERE PEOPLE CAN TOUCH IT and examine it in detail..." (emphasis mine)

I have yet to visit an air museum where people are allowed to "touch" the planes on display.

Posted by: Peter Kushkowski | March 14, 2011 2:14 PM    Report this comment

Peter Kushkowski -

Hie thee to the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola. Some planes are suspended overhead, but the floor is packed with warbirds that you can get up close and personal with - not to mention the cockpits that you can climb in. Yes, you can touch, caress, and fondle most of the planes to your heart's content.

Posted by: Rush Strong | March 14, 2011 2:24 PM    Report this comment

I'll take a midway position.

I think the aircraft left "as found" at the Navy Museum constitute a thoughtful and evocative display. Each time I visit, I probably spend more time with those two aircraft than any other. Because they came from fresh water, they are well preserved. I would be in favor of displaying the Devestator in "as recovered" condition.

On the other hand--the wreck won't really contribute anything to creating an "as it was when new" display. That can just as well be done with a replica.

It's analogous to having a real fish "mounted" vs. the composite reproduction--there is very little of the "real" fish in the "mount"--and the reproduction often looks more lifelike than the "mounted" fish.

All too often, museum curators get involved in memorializing the METAL, and forgetting about the ACTUAL STORY and PEOPLE behind the artifact. Leaving it as an "as recovered" display does both.

Posted by: jim hanson | March 14, 2011 2:46 PM    Report this comment

I touched Bock's Car in Dayton. Each museum is unique. There are one's that allow (usually non-flash) photography (but not with a support) and others that don't. This is a situation where there is not a yes/no answer

Posted by: David Ellis | March 14, 2011 2:54 PM    Report this comment

@Scott: It was probably not obvious from my first post (as English is not my native language), there are many TBD left to rot around Midway (No matter how deep), so we have some TDB's on the bottom, in their "now natural enviroment". So this one can and should be fished out and preserved. Spit and shine or the wreck exhibition, that's a question, but let it disappear foever is a sin, that's my point of view.

Posted by: Jiri Hubka | March 15, 2011 5:25 AM    Report this comment

Juri, second language or not you found the perfect word, it would be a sin to let this aircraft succumb to the ravages of time and saltwater. George Gay once told me that he was always frustrated that he couldn't help restore or build a new TBD. Even after all the losses and bad memories, he still had feelings for the aircraft. That the entire crew of this particular TBD were rescued makes it even more of a treasure as most of the other airframes, if they could even be found, are the grave sites for the men who flew them and as such are off limits (at least in my book). I have to admit that I'm a little more sensitive to this particular aircraft as I've had an obsession with the Devastator and the battle of Midway my entire life. Who knows, maybe one of those 35 TBDs sitting Northwest of Midway was "mine" long ago.

Posted by: Scott McGowin | March 15, 2011 1:52 PM    Report this comment

Please explain the "it is a grave site and should not be removed" philosophy. It seems to be a very selective sentiment It is done very seldom, if at all on land, so what is special about water? I can completely understand the USS Arizona but it incurred a very large amount of salvage work before in was made into a memorial. There is nothing special about the Titanic except to demonstrate man's hubris. I would speculate that very few of you know what the largest civilian martime disaster was and it outclasses the Titatic by at least a factor of 5 as far as I know.

Posted by: David Ellis | March 15, 2011 3:03 PM    Report this comment

OK, David Ellis, I give up. What was the largest civilian maritime disaster?

Posted by: Peter Kushkowski | March 15, 2011 4:16 PM    Report this comment

I've come up with this as the largest civilian maritime disaster:

The explosion of the French ship Mont-Blanc in Halifax Harbor, Nova Scotia, just before 9:05 a.m. on December 6, 1917, with tremendous loss of life and destruction of property.

Posted by: Peter Kushkowski | March 15, 2011 7:41 PM    Report this comment

You're right, Peter Kushkowski. Over 1900 known dead, and some victims never found.

And by all means, recover whatever historic aircraft that can be, safely. Pictures and video to supplement the airframe add immensely, but they are no substitute to actually viewing the specific specimen.

Posted by: James Hanson | March 15, 2011 8:45 PM    Report this comment

Actually it was the sinking of the MV Wilhelm Gustloff in the Baltic in 1945 with an estimated loss of 9400 lives. I apologise for using the wrong arrangement of words. The event took place during the war but involved mainly civilians. Here is a link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MV_Wilhelm_Gustloff

I apologise too, for taking the thread off-topic but the "grave site" reference got me going. With regard to military aircraft wrecks, my Uncle was killed in the the crash of his plane in France. The local French populace put up a small memorial to honour the crew but the plane wreckage was not left there as far as I know.

Posted by: David Ellis | March 15, 2011 9:30 PM    Report this comment

Wreck recovery does indeed need to be made on a case-by-case basis. Most importantly, if the wreck contains human remains, every effort should be made to contact living relatives for permission prior to raising or recovering a wreck. Otherwise, I support recovery of aircraft for the historical significance they hold for future generations. With the passing of the last veteran of WWI only the remnants of artifacts are left to tell the story of an entire generation. The same fate will happen to those involved in all subsequent conflicts- history we should endeavor to preserve without fail.

Posted by: Joe Flaugher | March 16, 2011 11:07 AM    Report this comment

Yes, wreck recovery needs to be made on a case-by-case basis. To me restoring, and flying, these historic a/c is the best way to pay homage to them. If you've been to Oshkosh and mingled with the warbirds there, you know what I mean.

Twenty years ago, when Oklahoma City put on a pretty decent airshow, there were many warbirds, including a B-17 and quite a few mostly radial engined a/c. When they all started firing up to get ready for their part of the show, the sound of all those engines was indescribably moving - an audible link to those guys who flew them orginally during WWII.

Airplanes are meant to fly. The greatest respect we can pay these craft from WWII (and earlier) is to keep them flying. If one goes in, then rebuild it again. BTW, does anyone know if there are any Martin B-26's flying?

Posted by: Jack Woodward | March 16, 2011 12:13 PM    Report this comment

Jack, a number of B-26 and A-26 aircraft are still flying. I believe Fanatasy of Flight is operating one on a regular basis.

To the rest of the gang- sorry for the off topic posting.

Posted by: Joe Flaugher | March 16, 2011 12:29 PM    Report this comment

Thanks, Joe. And my apologies as well for going OT.

Posted by: Jack Woodward | March 16, 2011 12:31 PM    Report this comment

I understand the thought of repspect of keeping a resored aircraft flying snd there are as many, if not more civilian than military "resorations" flying. Witness the DC-3s and, even more so, the C-46's in the the North. I have been 'up close and personal with the Lancaster fron the Museum In Hamilton. It is awesome to watch and hear her srart, take off and then do a low level full power flyby. But, there are now only three, possible two, flying, so at what point does the risk of a crash and total destruction, which usually includes death(s) outweigh the decision to fly them. How many of you have seen the crash of a one-of-a-kind or a one-of-a-few restored aircraft (with death)?

I do not agree with the sentiment that the a flying restored plane deserves respect or homage. What they represent or who is flying them may deserve that respect.

Posted by: David Ellis | March 16, 2011 3:12 PM    Report this comment

Recover and restore to a museum. That way people can see it for real, maybe touch it. Pictures and videos are not the same - would be meaningless to me.

Posted by: John Horn | March 16, 2011 6:02 PM    Report this comment

There is a very great difference between this wreck and any Devastator that might be built from such plans as survive. These plans are a vital resource for restorers, of course, and are a reason that there are more, for instance, Spitfires flying than there were when I was a boy. Entire types have been brought back from the grave to the museum, and from the hushed museum to the flight line: what-if types like the Martin-Baker MB5 and historic types like the Boeing P-26, Ki43 "Oscar" or Me 262.

An artifact, though, guides rebuilders in a way that plans cannot. Plans of any period expect the reader to have a great deal of tacit, tribal knowledge. The original factory floor and the original draftsmen were contemporaries and were members of the same industrial culture. People forget that not every warbird is a P-51, a type which has the benefit of being continuously operated for seventy years by a dedicated band of operators and maintainers. The knowledge has been passed down, in some cases from father to son, more like the way preliterate societies preserved the Odyssey or Njal's Saga than the way a modern library holds a copy of a book.

The only way to get that knowledge back, when the chain of custody of that expertise has been broken, is to reverse-engineer the artifact. The Devastator wreck contains a mountain of historical and engineering information that cannot be read from whatever plans survive.

Posted by: Kevin O'Brien | March 18, 2011 7:31 AM    Report this comment

At what point (pecentage) does what started as a restoration project result in a new "replica" aircraft. 5% original parts, 10%, 15%, etc. If it ends up as a flyable, one of a kind restoration/replica , especially as a historic artifact then the base position is that it should not be flown! Hands on, cockpit access, run up, taxied, yes, but not into the air. I do not say this esily as I get goose bumps watching them fly by, but I have seen the images of their complete destruction with, quite often death, caused by a high percentage of pilot miscalcution (OK, error). Many plane have disappeared for ever. Do we want to minimize that?

Posted by: David Ellis | March 18, 2011 8:50 AM    Report this comment

I volunter at the Kalamazoo Aviation History museum which has an SBD which was recovered from Lake Mjchigan after over twenty years. The restoration job was a MAJOR, MAJOR undertaking with a majority of the aircraft having to be re-created. The point I am making is that this recovery was from FRESH, not SALT water. I venture to guess that the proposed $300,000 recovery will turn out to be (pardon the pun) a drop in the bucket.

Posted by: Jo Ann Cornell | March 19, 2011 9:59 AM    Report this comment

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