Aviation archaeology is primarily the locating
and documenting of old aircraft crash sites. It focuses on
the preservation of these sites and of the history surrounding
the activities that caused them. There are many ways to preserve
crash sites and their history. However, a major barrier that
stands in the way is a lack of knowledge on the part of the
public and land managers.
First, I would like to emphasize that aviation archaeology
is not the recovery and restoration of wrecked aircraft. It
is possible to have a successful aviation archaeology expedition
without anything being recovered; however, no recovery should
be done without also involving aviation archaeology. Though
recoveries preserve the aircraft themselves for future generations
to see, which is very important, the act of recovering a crash
site destroys information and history. All recoveries should
involve proper documentation of the site before and during
the recovery. Thought should also be given to the placing
of a memorial and the display of some of the artifacts in
the condition as found.
As you may know if you’ve been to a site,
visiting a crash site can have a tremendous impact on ones
awareness and understanding of this time period and can provide
quite an education. During WWII, over 15,000 USAAF personnel
gave their lives in aircraft mishaps within the United States.
That is more than half of all of the personnel lost in air
combat over Europe during the entire war! While their deaths
were not seen as being as "glamorous" as combat
deaths, they paid the ultimate price for freedom nonetheless.
This was part of the price of WWII as well as the Cold War.
Many of these people have been forgotten and the history lost.
The goal of aviation archaeology is to record these incidents
in historical context rather than record just why it crashed
as can (sometimes) be found in government records.
At many crash sites today all that
remains is a burn area and a few small pieces.
One area that needs to be addressed in aviation
archaeology and in the recovery of aircraft is ethics. Many
people take home a few souvenirs from their visit. If everyone
keeps doing that, the sites will disappear. Most ethical people
would not take home a piece of pottery from Mesa Verde National
Park. It is a shame to see how these sites are disappearing.
The difference between what is at the B-25 in the Rincon Mountains
of AZ today versus what was there several years ago is astounding.
It is still a great site only because of the large pieces
that remain, probably due to its remoteness. Many of the smaller
more interesting items, along with a rudder, are gone. I hope
that they are being used for a restoration and not sitting
in someone's garage where no one can benefit from them. It
is great if one leaves that "cool" instrument there
so the next person can see it too, but odds are that the next
person will grab it and just put it in his garage. Therefore,
what needs to be done is better education of both public land
managers and the general public about the importance of these
Crash sites like this are very rare.
While not much remains at first glance,
these parts can reveal important clues as to
The public land managers need to learn that
in some cases it is better to recover the wreck (after properly
documenting it). The restored and flying aircraft provide
a very important part of educating the public on aviation
history, sometimes more so than a wreck out on a hillside.
However, some sites should be left in situ so people can see
a crash site in its natural setting. Unlike in traditional
archaeology, the sites left in situ should be the most common
and least historically significant aircraft. Examples of rare
aircraft should be in museums where they can be properly preserved
for future generations to see. The crash site’s location
and decomposing elements should also be taken into consideration.
An aircraft left out in the elements will not last several
hundred years like an arrowhead. The parts and wrecks that
cannot be used for flying or static displays and are in a
good preservation environment are important in historical
and educational value (as memorials and teaching tools). The
crashes are an important resource that belongs to everyone;
they are not trash sitting in the forest waiting to be picked
over for souvenirs.
The Navy has received quite of bit of flak for
its stance on USN aircraft wrecks. They emphasize preservation
and minimize recovery by outside parties. They claim ownership
of all of their wrecks (while the Air Force does not) and
make it very difficult for recovery/restoration operations.
Some have accused them of hoarding the sites for their own
museum. While their stance may be a bit too harsh or unfair,
it does have some merit. Most people are under the impression
that the wrecks are sitting there for the taking. On public
land there are laws that protect the wrecks and the Navy has
been the only one to bring it to our attention. (Please see
the link U.S.N. policy concerning aircraft wrecks on our links
page for more information).
Aircraft crash sites provide information,
history, and education. Aviation archaeology’s goal
is to preserve the information and history and to ensure the
education of the public about the aircraft and the history
surrounding them. If you like visiting these sites, please
help preserve them so that other people can also see them.
While we are at it, let’s try to record the sites while
they are still around and we can still interview some of the