7 Questions with Dominic BushOctober 22, 2021
Underwater Aircraft Archaeology Researcher and PhD Candidate
Dominic Bush joined Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum for as the featured guest of Sunken Treasures: Underwater Aircraft Archaeology -- a live webinar to discuss the fascinating science and law behind the preservation, conservation, and documentation of historic underwater aircraft sites.
Dominic Bush grew up in Kailua, Oahu, just two minutes to the nearest beach. Bush filled his time with snorkeling and diving off the coasts of Hawaii. As he grew up, he became passionate about the history of Hawaii and WWII, and how the two truly are very intertwined. This passion led him to study the “little oasis” that can be present at underwater aircraft wrecks.
Below is a Q&A with Dominic including questions not answered live and a few key moments in the webinar you don't want to miss!
#1: How long does the entire process of uncovering an underwater aircraft wreck roughly take?
A: The simplest answer is that it is a matter of funding. Without money to support research and fieldwork, it is impossible to plan and execute a project. It may take months or years to secure funding, often in the form of grants, which involves a cycle (or more) of applying. If funding is obtained, as we did with a National Center for Preservation Technology and Training grant (National Park Service), then one can start, or more often continue from research completed as part of the grant application process. The archival/background research can take longer or shorter based on the availability of information, the type of aircraft, its location (whether it is known or not), and its completeness.
With respect to permitting in Hawaii, all archaeological work must have an Authorization to Conduct Archology granted by the State Division of Historic Preservation. In my experiences, the SDHP is really on top of things, and permits are granted within a short turnaround time (less than 2 weeks) from the time of application. Additional permits from NOAA (if the site is in a National Marine Sanctuary, e.g. Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale NMS) or the Naval History and Heritage Command (if work will disturb a naval aircraft wreck) may also be required depending on site location and aircraft type.
My favorite part, collecting data, whether its archaeological measurements, photographic, biological, etc., is also the shortest part. On Maui and Oahu, we spend only 2 days diving (less than 4+ hours each day) on each island. Although the shortest when measured by length of time, it is often the most expensive part, due to travel costs, boat costs, and SCUBA/other equipment rentals. There is a general rule that for every hour spent in the field collecting data, another 3 hours are required in the laboratory/office processing and analyzing data. This could take anywhere from a few days to over a year depending on the data interpretation methods (e.g. DNA analysis).
#2: Have you had much success finding aircraft through charts or navigational records, or has your research been led by some other means?
A: For my specific research, I focused on sites that had been previously known and were a part of the Submerged Cultural Resource Inventory completed for BOEM by NOAA’s Maritime Heritage Program. However, while planning for future projects, especially in remote locales as is often the case with WWII in the Pacific, I have relied heavily on a combination of archival records, especially ship logs, and navigational charts to figure out what is possibly out there and which areas would be best for an archaeological survey.
Webinar: Dominic compared looking for an aircraft wreck to “looking for a needle in almost an infinite haystack.” Because of this, Dominic believes the best method is to discuss with local divers who are comfortable and knowledgeable of the waters in the area. According to Dominic, most sites in Hawaii have been discovered and confirmed by local divers. Discussed at 21:00.
#3: What is the best identifier for submerged aircrafts to determine identity?
A: The single best identifier is a planes bureau number (for naval aircraft) or its serial number (for army aircraft). This unique number is often painted on either the tail assembly or the rear of the fuselage. The engine also has a data plate inscription that can be used to identify a specific aircraft. If the identifier numbers or engine plate are missing, which is often the case, then one can begin to look at diagnostic features of the aircraft, starting with overall shape, tail assembly, and canopy/wing structure. More specific features, such as a plane armament, landing gear configuration, engine components, exhaust flaps, and ancillary parts (e.g. floats of a seaplane) can also be used to narrow down to a wreck to a specific make and model. The physical information about a plane, including which model of aircraft it is and its condition, can then be compared with archival information about wrecks in a certain area and details of crash reports to make inferences on the plane’s exact identity.
Webinar: Dominic discusses the tragedies linked to all aircraft wreck sites and how researchers search the plane for even the most minute signs of human remains at 19:15.
#4: Do you recover or remove anything from an aircraft to study when it is discovered?
A: Given that my research is focused on situation preservation of aircraft, I do not recover artifacts from planes and only take biological samples for testing. The decision to recover artifacts, as opposed to the entire plane, should adhere to the same logic as above. It is really a matter of being able to conserve the object once it is recovered and the rationale behind wanting to recover it, as removing it alters the site forever. I would advise against recovering anything from planes (with the exception of sanctioned-human remain recoveries or requests from a victim’s family) associated with the loss of life, as it is akin to grave-robbing.
Webinar: Dominic discussed the specific details of his data collection, including measurements, photographs, videos, biological samples, and more at 29:45.
#6: Who owns the aircraft and are there any laws to protect and preserve these historic sites?
A: The U.S. Constitution’s Property Clause in Article IV establishes Congress’ perpetual right, title, and ownership of materials produced for the U.S. federal government (including the military), which can only be extinguished by express written consent. Congress, through the passing of legislation (i.e. the Sunken Military Craft Act), has allowed the individual military branches to manage their downed aircraft, with the U.S. Army abandoning title to all pre-1961 aircraft.
To recover or otherwise disturb these aircraft, it is still necessary to get the permission of the landowner (an agency/department in the case of state and federal lands). For Naval aircraft, permissions to recover or perform any archaeological work that may affect an aircraft is up to the Naval History and Heritage Command.
For both army and naval planes, they may also be protected under the National Historic Preservation Act. This law mandates that any kind of work that involves the federal government requires that all historic resources in the area of a project need to assess the likelihood that the work will affect said resources. In this case, resources are evaluated by a criteria that is used to determine their eligibility for the National Register of Historic Planes. Most WWII aircraft would meet the criteria, and projects that would affect them would need to have a plan outlining the effects and mitigation plan to satisfy the regulations put forth by Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.
To supplement the federal level of protection, many states have passed their own historic preservation laws that may require additional permitting to work/recover historical resources such as WWII aircraft.
Webinar: Dominic discusses the Sunken Military Aircraft Act at 14:35.
#7: How do you decide when to document vs. when to recover?
A: Personally, I believe the issue of documentation and leaving in situation vs. recovery should be on a case-by-case basis. Wrecks that are associated with the loss of human life or serve as popular recreational (e.g. SCUBA or snorkeling) sites should not be recovered given the cultural and socio-economic value, respectively. Instead, efforts should be focused on how to best manage these types of sites from a human and natural (e.g. corrosion) perspective. Recovery is more appropriate for non-war grave wrecks that were lost in areas that are generally inaccessible to the public.
The Lake Michigan planes represent one such possible example, though even applying a blanket statement such as “recover all Great Lakes aircraft” is problematic and should be avoided. Recovery also must account for conservation efforts following the raising of a wreck. If the entity interested in recovering an aircraft lacks the appropriate funds and facilities to properly treat a formerly-submerged plane, then recovery should be postponed until the situation is rectified. Otherwise, the aircraft can suffer irreversible damage that could have been avoided if the plane had been left in the water. As of now, archaeologists are still unsure of the long-term (100+ years) sustainability of aircraft in aquatic environments, as we do not have case studies similar to iron/wooden shipwrecks that have been in the water for centuries. In general, it is probably best to not recover, except in very specific situations, as our knowledge of the decay processes affecting submerged plane wrecks is still very much evolving.