Eerie Plane Ruins Across the Globe Draw Wreckage Hunters

The wreckage of a plane found on the Papua New Guinea island of New Britain. Jean-Bernard Carillet/Getty Images

Back in November 1973, a U.S. Navy Douglas R4D Skytrain had just completed delivering some supplies and was headed to an airfield near a radar station in Stokksnes, Iceland. But the World-War II-vintage prop-driven military version of the old DC-3 airliner never got there. By one account, the plane encountered problems with a sudden buildup of ice on its wings, while in another version of the story, it may have run out of fuel. Either way, the pilot had to make an emergency crash-landing in a place called Sólheimasandur Beach. Fortunately, the crew was unhurt, and the plane survived relatively intact.

Nevertheless, the U.S. Navy never bothered to conduct a salvage operation, instead sticking to a policy of offering to reimburse the Icelandic government for 85 percent of the costs if it removed the wreckage itself. Iceland didn't, and the aircraft remained on the beach. Instead, over the years, the harsh extremes of the Icelandic environment and souvenir-seeking visitors have gradually dismantled much of the aircraft, leaving a battered, scarred portion of the fuselage partly embedded in the black sand, looking almost as apocalyptic as the half-buried Statue of Liberty that Charlton Heston finds at the conclusion of "Planet of the Apes." It was one of the world's more bizarre tourist attractions until this March, when local landowners — weary of the stream of curiosity-seekers trashing the area — finally put up a sign barring access.


Here's a video that a visitor shot at the site and uploaded to YouTube, prior to the recent ban:

But the Navy plane is just one of countless wrecked planes that form a ghostly air force stranded in remote spots across the planet, from the Sahara Desert to Oregon to the Caribbean island of Curaçao. They languish in deserts, jungles and mountainsides, and sometimes are buried under beach sands by the tides or else lie submerged just offshore. (From Wired, here's a gallery of such aircraft hulks, photographed by Dietmar Eckell.) Tracking down those lost aircraft has become an avocation for a small but dedicated subculture of wreck hunters, including aviation archaeologists who want to solve the mystery of what happened to the planes and preserve the wreckage for posterity before scavengers pick it over.

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Freedivers explore the wreckage of Douglas Dakota off the coast of Turkey.

One of the foremost figures in that field is Ric Gllespie, executive director of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR). The son of a decorated World War II bomber pilot, Gillespie is best known for leading TIGHAR's effort to solve the mystery of what happened to iconic aviator Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan when their Lockheed Electra 10E aircraft disappeared in the South Pacific in 1937, on what was supposed to be a 'round-the-world flight. A report on TIGHAR's website describes a piece of aluminum found on Nikumaroro, an uninhabited atoll in the southwestern Pacific republic of Kiribati, which some believe was a patch on Earhart's plane. (Others disagree.) He's also been involved in efforts to find the L'Oiseau Blanc, a French aircraft that disappeared on an attempt to fly from Europe to North America in 1927, just days before Charles Lindbergh accomplished the feat solo in the opposite direction.

Gillespie says he's motivated not just by the desire to locate such wrecks, but by the change to find out what actually happened to them.

"Any wrecked airplane has a story behind it," he explains. "Sometimes the story is tragic, sometimes heroic. Sometimes it's both."

There's also the chance to feel as if he's a witness to history. "You're someplace where something dramatic happened, and the relic is still there, as evidence," he says. "It puts you in touch with an event. It's always ultimately about the people, not the metal."

Wreck hunters work from historical records and study anecdotal accounts, but sometimes, people just stumble upon them by accident. In 1972, for example, Australian soldiers flying in a helicopter over Papua New Guinea spotted the remains of a U.S. Army Air Force B-17E bomber, which crash-landed in a swamp in 1942 as its fuel was running out. The wreckage eventually was retrieved by aviation enthusiast Alfred Hagen and shipped to the Pacific Aviation Museum in Hawaii for restoration.

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The wreckage of a World War II-era plane on a South Pacific island.
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Another World War II-vintage aircraft, a P-38 Lightning fighter, suddenly emerged from a beach in Wales in 2007 due to erosion. Gillespie and a team of archaeologists rushed to the site and carefully documented the aircraft, which he says was ditched by a pilot who ran out of fuel and couldn't get back to the airport. "He got out okay that day, though sadly, he was later killed in combat," Gillespie explains. The military "just left it there, and since newspapers weren't allowed to write about military crashes and people weren't allowed on the beaches during wartime, it just stayed there." At the time, Gillespie's team wasn't able to remove the wreckage, which since then again has slipped under the sand. The location remains secret, he says, so that they can return someday and dig it up.

Another reason for tracking down and documenting wrecked aircraft, Gillespie says, is that they sometimes represent the last remaining examples of certain plane models. He's currently involved in an effort to recover a rare World War II-vintage torpedo bomber lying at the bottom of a lagoon in the Marshall Islands. 

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The crashed US Navy plane at Iceland's Slheimasandur Beach has become a popular, though prohibited, spot for photographers.
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