A place for submerged aircraft in maritime archaeology?

In this post, maritime archaeologist Tony Burgess examines the growing sub-field of aviation archaeology.

When one thinks of maritime archaeology, the first images conjured up are those of shipwrecks, and maybe harbours and submerged landscapes, but (perhaps for fairly obvious reasons) rarely of submerged aircraft, and yet aircraft and all things maritime do share common ground, both literally and theoretically.

Submerged aircraft © University of Malta
St. Julian’s Beaufighter sunk off Malta © T. Gambin, University of Malta.

In one sense, the differences between aviation and maritime archaeology seem clear and well-defined. Aircraft are designed to travel through a different medium than boats, and their contact with the sea is usually either transitory or unplanned. Knowledge of how to understand an underwater aircraft wreck is rooted outside in a different context to which it is found, the sources of which usually lie in non-maritime related areas. Crashed aircraft can be (and have been) found literally anywhere, and therefore their appearance on the seabed is merely one of chance.

However, when one looks a little deeper, the overlaps between aviation and maritime archaeology become clear, even obvious. Aircraft carriers are a clear example of maritime craft, yet one whose entire raison d’etre is beholden to aircraft, and a knowledge of aircraft is critical to understanding them. When aircraft were first being built at the beginning of the 20th century, the common ground of creating a vessel designed to go through a hostile medium meant that boat builders were often involved. Perhaps not unrelated to this is the sharing of nomenclature – rudders, propellers, stringers, frames, spars, cockpit, the use of port and starboard are all common terms to both areas. The line between aviation and maritime archaeology becomes even more blurred when flying boats are considered, a vessel that has a keel, a hull, portholes, is neutrally buoyant and in the early days of aviation at least, when wood was still the material of choice, could be either carvel or clinker-built. Additionally, their natural home when not in the air being on the water meant that flying boats were usually built in yards adjoining waterways, so that they could be launched down the slipway when complete.

Theoretical concerns aside, there are a huge number of aircraft (mainly military) to be found underwater globally, and this shared medium means that the maritime archaeologist will often encounter aircraft, whether by accident or design. A working knowledge of aircraft and the attendant issues of finding them, not least the legal regimen and the issue of human remains, is essential for the modern maritime archaeologist.

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