Salvage

by Air Commodore C W Weedon
Air Commodore C W Weedon, Director Of Repair And Maintenance, Ministry Of Aircraft Production, enrolled at the Royal Naval College at Osborne in 1915. He transferred to the Royal Air Force Cadet College. at Cranwell, in 1920, and upon completion of his course was graduated as First Pupil and as Senior Cranwell Cadet. In 1932. he was awarded an Honours Degree in engineering at Cambridge University. Air Commodore Weedon attained his present rank of Air Commodore in 1941, and, at 37 years of age, was selected to direct the important service of Repair and Maintenance.
Crashed aircraft are no problem for this hard working group of artisans, who comprise Repair and Maintenance service.

A crashed aircraft has not necessarily completed its useful life. If it is our own, much can be salvaged; if it is an enemy machine, much can be learned. Damaged aircraft can sometimes be repaired on the site, or at least transported to a repair depot and made to fly again. But even if damaged beyond possibility of repair they may still contain a great quantity of serviceable or repairable components, or provide valuable raw material.

The crashed enemy plane is obviously the concern of the Air Ministry Intelligence Branch. No matter how inaccessible the site, an intelligence officer is soon on the spot and together with technical experts studies the wreckage in the case of a known type for any improvements in design or, if it is an altogether new type, for any novel features demanding the development of countermeasures for use by the Allied Air Forces. Thus, salvage is of vital importance both as a source of raw materials and as an aid to research and development. The RAF Maintenance Group which (under the control of the Ministry of Aircraft Production) is responsible for it, has made it a fine art.

First among the maxims of the group is speed of collection; speed not only from the point of view of rapidly clearing the site of a crash — which may be of paramount importance when a road or a railway line is obstructed — but also from the point of view of returning to active service the aircraft, or such component parts as are available, with the least possible delay.

Every crash is reported to the group and, within a few hours, an engineer officer is on the job. His is the responsibility for assessing the damage and deciding on the action to be taken by the repair and salvage unit. He may decide to repair the aircraft on the spot, taking into consideration such factors as the nature of the ground and the practicability of flying the aircraft off after repair.

Often, however, this is impossible — the crash may have occurred on a mountaintop, in a forest, a field or a bog. Wherever it is a skilled party of fitters immediately set out for the scene. The trip may be simple enough during summer months, but often the work must be completed during downpours of rain, or in intense cold. Salvage and repair go on however, in spite of the weather and whatever the difficulties.

Seawater causes rapid corrosion of light alloys, so salvage of aircraft from the sea must be completed with the utmost speed. This holds good, in fact, of any underwater work. Although a crash party does not normally deal with aircraft which have sunk in deep water, the group recently staged a full-dress "naval occasion" on an inland lake in which a heavy bomber had sunk. Before salvage could be carried out, an experienced deep-sea diver was needed, while a local army unit supplied pontoons on which the salvage men rigged improvised lifting gear.

As a result of experience gained largely since the outbreak of war, special equipment has been evolved. The type of mobile crane employed, for example, is capable of operating under all conditions, being fitted when necessary with caterpillar tracks for use over soft ground. The most familiar vehicle, however, is the Long Low Loader, affectionately known as the "Queen Mary" because of their length. More than 60 feet in overall length, this vehicle is capable of carrying a complete fighter aircraft, or the sections of the largest bomber.

Similarly, a range of equipment, chiefly in the form of trestles, has been evolved for use in conjunction with the "Queen Mary." This enables a very large variety of aircraft to be carried with the minimum of expenses and complication. Other items of special design, such as jacks for lifting crashed aircraft prior to dismantling and loading, have also been designed.

This special equipment cannot always be used. When a bomber crashed — wheels up — on a Welsh mountainside, 2,000 feet above sea level, salvage operations were begun in the face of what seemed to be impossible conditions. The nearest road was three miles away. The only approaches to the mountainside on which the plane lay were twisting paths made by mountain sheep. Yet the bomber was saved. Piece by piece it was gradually brought down the mountainside on improvised wooden sledges drawn by teams of horses, until at last the road was reached and the loading could be managed.

On another occasion a Whitley bomber crashed on a small island off the Scottish coast. Air reconnaissance showed that it appeared to be only slightly damaged and it was decided, therefore, that it must be salvaged and put into service again. It lay on a rocky headland to which there was no access other than an inlet from which the cliffs fell hundreds of feet sheer to the sea. A salvage party was landed on the island and dismantling began. When the component parts of the aircraft were ready for transport, a drifter from the mainland approached as close inshore as was possible. The components — including the engines, main planes, and sections of fuselage — were then lowered down the cliffs by improvised tackle to a lifeboat below. The lifeboat — all but submerged beneath the weight of some of the sections — was towed to the drifter, where the components were slung on board and safely stowed for the voyage to the mainland.

That Whitley bomber was completely saved in 18 days, by a crash party which — like all the many parties of the group — refused to acknowledge defeat by a signal to headquarters: "salvage abandoned."

With the air war mounting in fierceness, and the forces growing in numbers, salvage work will increase both in extent and in importance. The men of the group will be working night and day grumbling, grinning, hauling, heaving — but nobly playing their part.

This article was originally published in the September, 1942, "Special Royal Air Force Issue" of Flying and Popular Aviation magazine, vol 31, no 3, pp 170-171.
The original article includes a thumbnail photo of the author and 5 captioned photos.
Photos are not specifically credited, but seem to be from the British Air Ministry.

Photo captions: