Wreckchasing is the researching of, location of, and documentation of aircraft crashes and crash sites that occurred before 1970. As the nation's population expands, we are often encroaching upon historic aircraft crash sites. It is the job of the wreckchaser to locate and document these sites before they are scavenged by recyclers or built upon by developers.
Who wreckchases? Every major aviation museum has, or is actively locating crash sites for potential exhibits or restorations. Institutions ranging from the National Air and Space Museum, the Air Force Museum, the National Museum of Naval Aviation to the Royal Air Force Museum and the Imperial War Museum have recovered aircraft from the wilds and either restored or displayed their finds. One of the most poignant examples of wreckchasing is located at the world-class Air Museum - Planes of Fame in Chino, California. The museum displays the only complete Mitsubishi G4M "Betty" bomber in a setting depicting the way it was located in the jungle. Many of the Grumman F4F Wildcats and Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers on display today were recovered from Lake Michigan years after training crashes sent them to rest on the murky bottom.
Numerous one-of-a-kind aircraft on display in museums owe their existence to wreckchasers. Outside the collections of the National Air and Space Museum and The Air Museum - Planes of Fame, the majority of surviving Japanese aircraft were recovered from their battlefield resting places and subsequently restored. The Sikorsky S-43 on display at the Pima Air and Space Museum, Tuscon, Arizona, would not have survived had it not been for aircraft recovery pioneers such as Gary Larkins. Another fine example of wreckchasing is the P-38 Lightning that is today on display at the Hill Air Force Base Museum. This beautiful display was built from parts of a number of different wrecked P-38s by Ed Kaletta of KalAero in San Diego, California. This aircraft is an excellent example of an aircraft recovered by wreckchasers and brought back to live by aircraft restoration artisans.
Documentation of a site often brings closure to families who have lost a loved one. Many soldiers, sailors, and airmen gave their lives while training or being transported in military aircraft. Location, preservation, and documentation of these sites is a national obligation. A number of wreckchasers have located crashed military aircraft and recovered identification tags and personal effects of aircrew. In turn, the wreckchasers have taken steps to ensure that these items are presented to the next of kin.
The U.S. Air Force and Navy both have aircraft recovery policies - each very different from the other. For U.S. Air Force aircraft, the policy is quite clear as noted in the following excerpt from the USAF Supply Manual, AFMAN 23-110, Volume 6, Excess and Surplus Personal Property, Chapter 9, Processing Complete Aircraft and Missiles:
"Paragraph 9.10. Downed Aircraft. Aircraft that crashed before 19 November, 1961, when a fire destroyed the pertinent Air Force records, and that remain wholly or partially unrecovered, are considered formally abandoned. The Air Force neither maintains title to, nor has the property interest in, these aircraft. The authority for access to, and recovery of, these aircraft, as well as liability for damages associated with their recovery, are matters to be resolved between persons seeking recovery and landowners of the wreckage sites.
"9.10.1. If any human remains are discovered at the site, recovery personnel should immediately contact the nearest United States Embassy or the nearest United States military installation. To assist in proper identification of remains, recovery personnel should refrain from further operations at the site pending removal of the remains by United States experts."
The U.S. Navy, on the other hand, has stated that everything ever owned by the Navy is a cultural resource. Check out their lengthy policy at the Naval Historical Center's site.
Wreckchasing.com is providing a forum for the frank discussion of topics relating to aircraft archaeology and an archive of crash sites stories and documentation. Please download our documentation forms to assist you in your wreckchasing research.
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