by DOUG CHAMPLIN
The first time I saw it we were sitting in my living room. When the flickering blue-green images began playing on the TV screen, I was instantly hooked. There it was. A TBD Devastator! We were looking at an airplane the world thought was extinct. It was covered by a woolly blanket of plant growth and sea debris, but it was there. It was all there. And it sat in only 500 feet of water, just waiting for us.
Seven years later, itís still waiting for us. Only now, the salt water has had seven more years to eat away at its fragile aluminum frame. The airplane is slowly dying. We know exactly where it is, exactly how to bring it up and exactly how to preserve it. But we can't. In fact unless the Navy's shortsighted, self serving policies change, yet another aerial species will slowly oxidize into oblivion before our eyes.
There are dozens of historically oriented salvagers and museums in the same position. They are desperately racing against time to salvage rare airplanes from watery graves. If the airplanes are ex-Air Force, they can be salvaged with the Air Force's blessing. Bring up a Navy airplane, however, and you can count on a call from the Justice Department threatening severe legal action for stealing government property. The FBI and a lawsuit won't be far behind.
I tried to negotiate a trade with the Navy: Iíll bring up the TBD and trade it to your museum for an ex-Great Lakes Wildcat that is surplus to your needs. OK, they said; bring up a piece of the wreck so we know whether itís worth having. We brought up a piece, which isn't as easy as it sounds by the way. The letter from the justice Department arrived almost immediately, demanding we turn the piece over to the Navy and give up any attempt at salvage.
The list of similar examples is long and terrifying. Itís not worth going into each of them, but Bob Mester, owner of Historic Aircraft Preservation Inc. and my salvager on the TBD project, decided to bring the question of Navy policies to a head by suing them in court over a Wildcat in a Washington lake. The Navy was told where it was and was given a chance to raise it. The Navy declined to go after it so Mester filed claim to it and went to court under Admiralty Law. The suit backfired, as the court found in favor of the government. In effect, the decision said that the government never gives up ownership of anything, even if it has abandoned it and written it off the inventory. The only way ownership can be relinquished is by the owning agency expressly giving up tide, as the Air Force's blanket policy has done for any crash that occurred prior to 1964.
We held a meeting at the Navy Historical Center in Washington, and the attending JAG officer said Navy policies on the matter were under review. Twelve months' worth of corrosion later, there was still no response, so we enlisted the aid of Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who immediately saw the lack of logic in the situation.
With the help of his office, it became obvious there were two courses of action: a Congressional act could amend the Constitution to recognize governmental abandonment of items such as WW II aircraft or the Navy could change its overly rigid policy. Of the two, a policy change is simpler, less expensive and easier to monitor and fine tune.
Through Sen. McCain, we proposed a policy in which reputable salvagers who met specific requirements could salvage Navy aircraft.† The Navy would have the same rights as any owner under Admiralty Law: it could reimburse the sal≠vager for his expenses plus a negotiated profit and take the aircraft or, if it had no desire or need for the aircraft, it could sign over ownership to the salvager.
As this was being written, McCain's military liaison had found the Navy to be as slow to respond as we have. For reasons known only to those in command positions, the Navy is not only reluctant to change its position but is also practically refusing to debate the issue.
We don't claim to understand the reasoning. However, we originally said there were two courses of action: Congressional act or policy reform. There is actually a third option. We do nothing, and in 10 years or so, the entire question becomes moot because there will be nothing left to salvage.
If the Navy would go along with our proposals, it would be a win-win situation: rare aircraft would be saved for posterity, and the Navy would have its pick of the litter for slightly more than operating costs. If it continues to drag its feet, however, itís a lose-lose situation: the Navy loses the aircraft, and future generations lose a piece of their heritage.
The Navy must do something or it will betray the public's trust by allowing its shortsighted procrastination to destroy the very history it has sworn to protect.
Now it's the Navy's move. And it had better be quick.
Doug is the owner and operator of the
Champlin Fighter Museum in Mesa,
Arizona, the largest privately owned
collection of fighter aircraft in the world.