Monday, May 2, 2011


My good friend and probably one of the most experienced aviation recovery and restoration experts in the world, had this to say about the flawed Navy efforts to recover this great Naval Aviation historical artifact....



An Editorial


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, it’s 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: I’ll 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 it’s 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. It’s 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 sal­vager 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, it’s 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 Champlin
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.

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Sunday, May 1, 2011


Is there really a genuine effort to recover and restore one of the most important and significant historical Naval aviation artifacts in 100 years of US Naval Aviation history? Or, is there actually a financial quest made up of poorly conceived and flawed attempts at the recovery of a supposedly elusive artifact which serves as a generator for more and more donations and funds to foundations and private entities? It would seem that more than enough funds would have been acquired for the recovery and restoration of this historically incredibly valuable Navy aircraft which represents the sacrifices of many heroic aircrews during the early stages of the war against Japan. Many such aircraft have been successfully recovered from the ocean and painstakingly, authentically and immaculately restored so that the history and sacrifices that they represent are available for public viewing, education and research. I know, I have restored an number of them, as you can see on my website. So what is so different about recovering and restoring this aircraft?

Obviously, one of the most sought after airplanes for recovery and restoration is the Douglas TBD Devastator which was an all metal torpedo bomber of the United States Navy, first-ordered in 1934 and entering service in 1937. At that time it was a very advanced naval aircraft, being an all metal monoplane with a totally enclosed cockpit and hydraulically actuated folding wings. It had a semi-retractable undercarriage so as to minimize damage in the event of a wheels up landing, and carried a crew of three. It was very advanced for its time, as biplanes for aircraft carriers were relegated to the past. But it was soon outclassed by the high paced technological developments at the beginning of World War II.

The Devastator performed admirably in some early battles, but in the Battle of Midway almost all the aircraft were wiped out. Their slow speed, particularly when dropping torpedoes, made them extremely vulnerable to fighters and defensive fire from enemy ships. At the outbreak of war with Japan in December of 1941, 100 TBD Devastators comprised the Navy's carrier torpedo force in the Pacific. Although the Devastator was a very advanced aircraft in the late 1930s, it was obsolete by 1942 when it was withdrawn from front-line service on the summer that same year. After that, it was used as an advanced trainer until the end of the war. Only 130 Devastators were built, and as of this date there are no Devastators that exist in any country, collection or museum.

According to Wikipedia there are only three Devastators known to exist underwater and they are: TBD-1, BuNo. 0298, Ex-VT-5 / USS Yorktown (CV-5), Jaluit Lagoon, Marshall Islands, TBD-1, BuNo. 0353, Ex-NAS Miami, Atlantic Ocean, Miami, Florida, and TBD-1, BuNo. 1515, Ex VT-5 / USS Yorktown (CV-5), Jaluit Lagoon, Marshall Islands.

According to the EAA website on March 2, 2011,, a fourth TBD-1 has been located. “The National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida, announced last week plans to raise a pre-World War II Douglas TBD Devastator torpedo bomber located off the coast of San Diego, California. Once sponsorship is secured, the rare warbird will be retrieved and restored to static display condition. With no flying or display Devastator examples anywhere in the world, the TBD is among the most sought-after restorations, according to Capt. Ed Ellis, USN (Ret), 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,’ Ellis said…”

In addition, “Ellis explained that until recently the museum’s focus was on raising a Devastator from the Atlantic Ocean off Miami, Florida. However, the project was scuttled due to legal issues when the party that discovered the wreckage filed a lawsuit to claim it. Another TBD located in the Marshall Islands looked promising but the logistics and cost of raising and shipping it back to the U.S. proved prohibitive...” And……”The museum is looking for sponsors to help with the estimated $300,000 needed to raise and ship the plane back to Florida, where museum staff and volunteers will be tasked with restoring to plane for static display.”

I would ask how much money has been raised through the museum’s donations and Foundation specifically for the purpose of recovering and restoring this great historic artifact. And, how were the funds raised, and where was the money spent? Does anyone besides me, have any insight to this mystery…?

(Photo - TimeLife)