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Sinking of CSS Alabama

WASHINGTON DC 20374-5060

Navy Aircraft as Artifacts

Robert S. Neyland and David Grant

(Material contained herein is made available for the purpose of peer review and discussion and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of the Navy or the Department of Defense.)


Aircraft are the machines of our recent past. Navy and Army Air Corps aircraft were mass-produced in the thousands during World War II. Once plentiful, they are becoming increasingly rare, as their historical significance grows. Military aircraft wrecks, particularly those from World War II known as "Warbirds," are highly sought after by museums, collectors, and salvors and thus are extremely threatened wreck sites. The Navy, represented by the Naval Historical Center (NHC), has found itself as one of the leaders in aviation archaeology and the preservation of historic aviation resources. How the NHC came to be involved in protecting and preserving aircraft wrecks is the subject of this paper.

Scope of Resource

It is difficult to calculate the total number of Navy aircraft wrecks. The Navy has over 35,000 Aircraft Crash cards for World War II. However, many crash reports refer to aircraft that were repaired, removed, scrapped for parts or otherwise eliminated. Therefore, each of these records requires scrutiny. After many grueling hours, NHC personnel estimate that about 12,000 "Crash cards," could represent extant terrestrial and submerged Navy aircraft wrecks. The number of surviving wrecks is less due to subsequent destruction by environmental and human factors.

Development of Policy

NHC, in developing its Underwater Archaeology program believed that its primary focus would be shipwrecks. Requests from salvors and Museums alike soon made it apparent that naval aircraft from WWII and earlier were hunted intensely and that they rivaled shipwrecks as management concerns (Cooper 119:134-39). Reports of aircraft recoveries, both real and imagined, came from numerous locations in the US and the distant Pacific. The NHC was forced to actively pursue the archaeology of naval aviation by the competing demands of aviation museums, salvors, and the resulting immediate threats to the preservation of the underwater remains of Navy aircraft (Whipple 1995:10).

Prior to WW II aircraft reaching the 50-year threshold date for National Register consideration, Navy aircraft wrecks were dealt with as surplus equipment that must satisfy the legal requirements for disposal of federal property, demilitarization of weapons systems, munitions, and human remains. A Naval Air System Command Fact Sheet of May 1987 (United States Navy [USN] 1987) states that Navy aircraft belong to the Government of the United States until the Navy determines their disposition. Disposition, as defined in the fact sheet, can be "recovery, loan or donation to a qualified organization, or sold either intact or as scrap". The fact sheet provided the possibility of public sale through the Defense Reutilization and Marketing Service (DRMS), but stipulated there were no assurances that any located and identified aircraft will be offered for public sale.

The 1987 memorandum illustrates that the Navy was already engaged in defending title over wrecked aircraft well before the NHC became involved. Two examples include a TBF Avenger recovered off the Florida coast in a mistaken belief it was from the lost Flight 19 and a stripped and burned Helldiver recovered from Lake Washington. Also in the 1980s, two partime salvors began finding Navy aircraft in Lake Michigan. These aircraft were lost during WWII-era carrier qualification training. A Douglas SBD Dauntless dive-bomber and a Grumman F4F Wildcat fighter were first recovered for loan to Patriots Point Museum in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. Captain, Bob Rasmussen, Director of the Navy's National Museum of Naval Aviation (NMNA) heard of the recoveries of these two aircraft, of which his museum did not have examples, and realized there was a deep freeze stocked with well-preserved World War II Navy aircraft. He also discovered that these submerged aircraft might be used to trade for aircraft recoveries, restoration services, or items to trade with museums for other aircraft. US law allowed military museums to exchange one item for another. In 1988, Rasmussen found an advocate in Congressman Earl Hutto who sponsored legislation permitting military museums to exchange equipment for services, including salvage and restoration. NMNA used this mechanism to trade the title to two Wildcats and a Dauntless for the services of A&T Recovery. In return, A&T Recovery salvaged a Vought Vindicator, a Dauntless, and a Wildcat for the Museum. Since that time, the Museum has sponsored over two dozen aircraft recoveries from Lake Michigan. The National Museum of Naval Aviation credits the trading program with supplying half of its collection (Hoffman 1998:39-40). Their trading policies had a downside encouraging a market for Navy aircraft, which resulted in increased salvage interest in Navy aircraft wrecks and fostered a climate of exploitation.

As the NHC became involved in Underwater Archaeology, it was faced with ensuring that the other Navy commands follow NHPA guidance. This was applied to the Lake Michigan and other aircraft recoveries proposed by the Museum. The most significant Navy aircraft to be recovered was pulled from the waters of Lake Michigan. It was an SBD-3 Dauntless, a veteran of the Battle of Midway and Pearl Harbor, and clearly National Register eligible (Wills 1997).

A Grumman F6F-5 Hellcat was the first contest the NHC fought over aircraft. It was a battle over ownership, but also over historic preservation. An aircraft wreck was spotted in 1993 on the seabed off Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts during a U.S. Coast guard aerial security patrol. The wreck was investigated and identified as World War II vintage. More research revealed it was an aircraft attached to a Night Air Combat Training Unit headquartered at Charleston, Rhode Island. On April 3, 1945, the aircraft piloted by Ensign Vincent A. Frankwitz USNR, ditched due to engine failure. Ensign Frankwitz escaped from the sinking aircraft but perished in the 42-degree water. Of the 7,869 Hellcats built during WWII only 20 are now extant and this specific Hellcat was found to be an early production variant of which only 1,404 were built (Weekly 1994:12).

Quonset Air Museum, a fledging air museum in Rhode Island, was immediately interested in adding this aircraft to their collection and proceeded with recovery. The initial recovery efforts failed because of a lack of removal of sediments. Publicity of these efforts alerted the Naval Historical Center, which contacted Quonset Museum. Quonset Museum requested the loan or donation of the aircraft. In response, the NHC requested a submission of plans for recovery, conservation, and restoration, and warned Quonset that they must first obtain Navy permission before recovery. Damon Ise, the president of Quonset Museum, agreed not to proceed further without Navy approval. This promise was soon forgotten, however, and on 5 December 1993, without notifying the Navy, Quonset recovered the Hellcat (Weekly 1994:13-14). Although the recovery was lauded in local press accounts, the Hellcat suffered significant damage from the recovery losing the tail section, wings, and engine. Most of the portions were eventually recovered except for the engine, which could not be relocated.

The breach of faith forced the Navy's hand and the Judge Advocate General, Admiralty Division requested Naval Criminal Investigative Service to initiate an investigation. In an effort to deter others from similar salvage attempts, the Navy asked that the aircraft be turned over and transported to the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Florida at Quonset's expense. In reality, this course of action was a disadvantage for NMNA, which already had a Hellcat in their collection. This new acquisition would force the reallocation of scarce resources to pay for the restoration and conservation.

Quonset sued for ownership of the aircraft and eventually spent several thousand dollars on legal fees. The Navy responded by defending government ownership. Both sides took a beating in the newspapers with the Navy portrayed as the school yard bully and Quonset as a looter of war graves and taker of federal property. More than a few David and Goliath comparisons were made in the newspapers. Eventually an out of court settlement was reached whereby Quonset Air Museum obtained the aircraft on loan, the aircraft remained Navy property, and would be conserved and restored according to Navy standards. In this agreement, replacement of parts would be minimal and the aircraft would be stabilized and exhibited as an artifact from the seabed.

This was not the only issue over ownership of Navy aircraft. As the Hellcat incident was resolved, two other legal cases were developing. One confrontation occurred over a rare Navy aircraft 20 miles off the coast of Florida in 500 feet of water and the other over an aircraft pulled from the Indiana waters of Lake Michigan. The former was a Douglas TBD Devastator discovered in 1991, by New York based treasure hunter Robert Cervoni, who first offered to sell the coordinates to the National Museum of Naval Aviation for $25,000. After the Navy did not immediately purchase the coordinates, Cervoni sold the coordinates for $75,000 to Doug Champlin, a collector of WWII aircraft with a Museum in Arizona. Champlin attempted to trade the coordinates to NMNA for one or two Wildcats recovered from Lake Michigan. In early 1994, he hired a submarine to recover a portion of the aircraft's canopy and directed his attorney to arrest the aircraft as abandoned property in a Miami court. NHC discovering that an Admiralty arrest had been made in federal court, requested JAG-Admiralty Division and Department of Justice-Civil Division take immediate action. DOJ, after investigating the merit of the case, threatened civil and criminal sanctions if the Admiralty arrest of the aircraft was not dropped and the canopy immediately turned over to the Navy. The Admiralty suit was dropped and the canopy delivered to NMNA. However, this was far from the end of attempts to gain control of the TBD or receive money or other aircraft in trade from the Navy in exchange for recovery or the coordinates (Hoffman 1998:40-43). There would be continued attempts to overturn Navy policies through court precedent and through congressional legislation.

As the Department of Justice was resolving the TBD case, Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) was pursuing Florida salvor Peter Theophanis for the taking of a Douglas Dauntless SBD aircraft in 1993. Theophanis originally was searching for an aircraft he hoped to sell to the NMNA. Unable to find that aircraft he offered to recover another Navy aircraft for the Museum, but was rejected. Unknown to the Navy, Theophanis later brought up this Navy aircraft from Indiana waters, delivered it on the dock to a middleman buyer, who then resold it to a private collector. The recovery, which took place at night, was discovered by a reporter listening to a marine radio and reported in a local paper. A&T Recovery, a rival salvage firm, informed on Theophanis and the NMNA requested the NCIS to investigate. Theophanis failed to turn over the aircraft as requested; perhaps he no longer knew where it was located. The U.S. Attorney's Office issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of theft of government property. During the trial it was discovered that the identifying bureau number of the aircraft was misidentified and the case was dismissed on this technicality (Hoffman 1998:41).

Shortly after this, a civil court case in Washington State was initiated against a Navy aircraft located on the bottom of Lake Washington. The Washington federal court may have been chosen intentionally for a 1984 court ruling against the Navy. In this earlier case the judge ruled in his 1985 decision that the Navy had shown evidence of abandoning a specific Curtis Helldiver (United States of America v. Jeffrey Kenneth Hummel and Matthew W. Mc Cauley, U.S. District Court, Western District of Washington at Seattle, Case No. C84-1058C). The Helldiver had been stripped, repeatedly burned by the Navy in fire-fighting practice, and finally taken out in Lake Washington by the Navy and sunk. The judge, in his 1984 decision, ruled that Navy abandonment applied only to this specific aircraft and did not apply to any other Navy aircraft in Lake Washington. Regardless of the limitations of this court ruling, Historic Aircraft Preservation Inc., the plaintiff chose on 24 May 1995 to arrest a Navy Wildcat. In the resulting l996 decision, the court ruled in favor of the Navy and ordered that the Warrant of Arrest of the aircraft be vacated. In addition, the court stipulated that the plaintiff was prohibited from conducting salvage operations or any other activities which interfere with the United States ownership interest in the aircraft, and ordered that any pieces of the aircraft be turned over to the Navy (Historic Aircraft Preservation Inc. v. One wrecked and Abandoned F4-F-4 Wildcat Fighter Airplane, U.S. District Court, Western District of Washington At Seattle, Civil No. C95-0795 Z).

The ruling in favor of the Navy may have instigated Doug Champlin, who still maintained his interest in the TBD aircraft, and who is a constituent of Senator John McCain of Arizona, to attempt to obtain the Senator's support for a proposed Navy Warbird Act, which would formally abandon all Navy aircraft lost prior to November 19, 1961. The NHC and Navy JAG rebuked this Act as a self-serving attempt to financially benefit a few salvors, collectors, and their attorneys, at the expense of the American public. The Navy's review of the proposed legislation found it to be in conflict with the Federal Property Act, 40 U.S.C. 512. Not only was the legislation unnecessary, but if passed, it would have led to the disturbance of war graves, would foster commercial exploitation and the depletion of a finite resource, and harm the public's interest in these historic aircraft. The saga of the TBD continues, for attempts have been renewed in 1998 to place the wreck under admiralty court arrest.

Navy Policy and Air Force Policy

The Air Force's policy differs strikingly from that of the Navy. The Air Force policy is provided in a 1994 Air Force manual (United States Air Force [USF] 1994).

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 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.

In 1996, the Air Force added the caveat, "if any human remains are discovered at the site, recovery personnel should immediately contact the nearest United States Embassy or 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. (USF 1996)."

Interestingly, the Air Force records claimed to have been lost in a fire can be found elsewhere. According to the web site for the Air Force Historical Research Agency (AFHRA), (, their agency, "maintains individual records for all aircraft once or presently in the United States Air Force inventory. These records begin in 1924 and continue to July 1990 and appear to be about 98 percent complete (USF 1998)." Aircraft salvors have expressed amusement at the Air Force's claim that the records were lost. One career aircraft salvor created his private database from approximately 67,000 individual Army Air Corps and Air Force accident records (Hoffman 1997:29). Perhaps as many as 44,000 of these records represent accidents that resulted in the loss of the aircraft. Potential wreck sites represent possibly half this number. Air Force abandonment was the basis for attempting to get the Navy to also abandon their aircraft in the recently proposed Warbird Act. The Navy has not disputed the Air Force's claim of abandonment, but other agencies have not recognized the Air Force's assertion as legitimate abandonment (Pelkofer 1998).

Value of the Resource

Why the intense interest in Navy aircraft by salvors? Dollars, real and anticipated, are the principal motive. The Hellcat recovered by Quonset Air Museum, although badly damaged, had an estimated value of $200,000. Two Lake Michigan Wildcats recovered by A&T Recovery were reported to have been sold for $250,000 apiece. And the rare TBD was estimated to have a value of one or two million dollars once restored. Aircraft museums, in the crush to build collections, have been an impetus for recoveries and have been instrumental in creating a market value for historic aircraft. This is a familiar pattern with museums, for it is similar to how the acquisition practices of many fine arts and archaeological museums stimulated looting of archaeological artifacts and illegal collecting of stolen art (Herscher 1998:66-78).

Navy Leadership

The NHC has significantly advanced the cause of historic aircraft preservation since 1993. By undertaking NHPA, Section 106 compliance, the NHC has used the same measuring sticks applied to other historic properties. Applying the NHPA to aircraft, however, has not been as straightforward as its application to historic buildings, archaeological sites, and ships. The NHC, because of the ambiguities with aircraft wrecks, sponsored in 1993 the development of a National Register Bulletin, Guidelines for Evaluating and Documenting Historic Aircraft Properties (Millebrooke l998). This recently published bulletin provides guidance for federal agencies in managing historic aviation properties including aircraft and aircraft wrecks. Another ongoing NHC project is an inventory of Navy aircraft wrecks and recommended guidelines for documenting Navy aircraft wrecks.

The Navy maintains ownership of its historic aircraft in order to preserve the nation's heritage in naval aviation. In a letter from the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, Deputy Executive Director John M. Fowler, commented on Navy policy:

By continuing to claim ownership we believe that the Navy is in a good position to advance the causes of preservation of those aircraft that are historic, i.e., that meet the criteria for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. We believe the Navy's ownership position is consistent with the stated goals of the National Historic Preservation Act (16 U.S.C. 470 as amended). Sections 110(a)(1) and (d) of the Act require that Federal agencies assume responsibility for the preservation of their historic properties, and carry out programs which further the purposes of this Act. By maintaining jurisdiction over their downed aircraft, and by supporting the restoration, education, and display of those historic properties significant to the Navy in particular and the history of aviation in general, the Navy is taking a reasonable and responsible role in the field of aircraft historic preservation. (Fowler 1994).

In five years, NHC personnel have drafted and established Navy policies and set precedents, assisted in the drafting of a National Register bulletin, successfully applied Section 106 to many aircraft wreck sites and achieved a number of legal victories in preserving and promoting naval aviation history.


Cooper, David
1994 "In the Drink: Naval Aviation Resources and Archaeology." Underwater Archaeology Proceedings from the Society for Historical Archaeology Conference 1994: 134-139. Robyn P. Woodward and Charles D. Moore, editors. Vancouver, British Columbia.

Fowler, John M.
1994 Letter to Commander Kevin P. McMahon (USN). 24 August 1994. Underwater Archaeology Branch Files. Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.

Herscher, Ellen
1998 "Tarnished Reputations: Museum Acquisition Policies Remain Mired in Scandal and Controversy." Archaeology. 5 l(5):66-78.

Hoffman, Carl
1998 "Whose Planes are They, Anyway?" Air & Space/Smithsonian 13(4):37-43.

Hoffman, Carl
1997 "Gary and the Pirates." Air & Space/Smithsonian 12(1):26-35.

Millibrooke, Ann and Patrick Andrus, Jody Cook and David B. Whipple
1998 Guidelines for Evaluating and Documenting Historic Aviation Properties. National Register Bulletin. United States Department of the Interior. National Park Service. National Register of Historic Places.

Pelkofer, Peter
1998 Letter to Robert L. Bridge. 29 April 1998. Underwater Archaeology Branch Files. Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.

United States Airforce [USF]
1998 Frequently Asked Questions. Web page for Air Force History,

1996 Air Force Manual 23-110, 6(9.10.1):104. 21 October1996.

1994 Air Force Manual 23-110, 6(9.10):104. 14 November1994.

United States Navy (USN)
1987 Policy on Submerged Naval Aircraft. NAVAIR Fact Sheet. Congressional and Public Affairs Office, Naval Air Systems Command. Washington, D.C.

Weekly, Howard, Jr.
1994 "Presidential Hellcat." Warbirds International. 13(3):10-17

Wills, Richard K.
1997 "Dauntless in Peace and War: A Preliminary Archaeological and Historical Documentation of Douglas SBD-@ Dauntless BuNo 2106, Midway Madness." Prepared by Naval Historical Center, Underwater Archaeology Branch, Washington. D.C. Submitted to United States Navy, in press

Whipple, David
1995 "Aircraft as Cultural Resources: The Navy Approach." Cultural Resource Management 18(2):10.

Zehner, Michael W.
1994 Letter to Frank P. Carchedi. 6 April 1994. Underwater Archaeology Branch Files. Naval Historical Center, Washington, D.C.

25 May 2001