# What happens to aircraft wreckage?

A small private plane (Piper) crashed near where I live a few years ago. Both occupants were killed. The crash site is on the top of a ridge in dense forest. Reaching the site would require a hike of about a mile from the nearest road. The terrain is steep, heavily wooded, and crossing several creeks would be required. No vehicle can reach the site, not even ATVs.

I spent a number of years as an EMT with the fire department, so I know how the initial rescue goes and what happens to the human remains, but what happens to the wreckage and who takes care of it? The fire department certainly isn't going to invest the time and manpower it would require to haul that plane out of there.

In this example, you would have to use a helicopter to remove the wreckage. Even if you disassembled it on site, carrying it out would still be impractical (there's that engine to deal with, for one).

So for the investigators on a crash like this, do they travel to the site to inspect the plane, do they retrieve only key pieces, or do they just do without?

And to what extent does that depend on the size of the plane and number of victims? For example, do they leave the single-engine Piper where it is but haul out pieces of the 747 by helicopter?

Any info you'd like to add on salvage would be appreciated too. Crashed or not, a plane is likely to contain some valuable and undamaged electronics, engine parts, etc. Surely that stuff isn't just left for whoever wants it to salvage.

• @ZachLipton Knowing what VHF radios, instruments, GPS units, etc. can be sold for on eBay, I expect plenty of people would be willing to salvage stuff like that. If the plane didn't burn (this one didn't) and the cockpit isn't totally destroyed, I would expect there's a good chance some or even most of that stuff will be perfectly functional. – Carey Gregory Sep 28 '16 at 23:45
• – J Walters Sep 29 '16 at 0:26
• I'd take a radio if it had a yellow tag. – acpilot Sep 29 '16 at 2:37
• Depending on the size of aircraft, it's quite practical for helicopters to sling completely assembled yet, wrecked aircraft back to a road system. – fbynite Sep 29 '16 at 6:40

It depends on a lot of things like the kind of accident, the wreckage state, accessibility etc.

First thing to consider is that in most cases, the wreckage is evidence- so the investigating authority will take control of it and release it only when the investigations are complete or has reached a stage where the wreckage is not needed anymore.

As far as air investigations are concerned, the first thing to do usually is to dispatch a team to the site. For example, NTSB has a 'go' team which is dispatched as soon as possible to the accident site. From NTSB site:

At the core of NTSB investigations is the "Go Team." The purpose of the Safety Board Go Team is simple and effective: Begin the investigation of a major accident at the accident scene, as quickly as possible, ...

During their time on the "duty" rotation, members must be reachable 24 hours a day by telephone at the office or at home, or by pager.

After a preliminary investigation, the team decides what to do with the wreckage- either these are returned to the owner or retained for further investigation, partially or in full. From NTSB Major Investigations Manual:

When the IIC and the group chairmen have determined that parts or all of the wreckage is no longer needed for investigative purposes, the IIC ..., in consultation with the OAS Director, will be responsible for preparing and signing Part I of the wreckage release form (NTSB form 6120.15). The form shall be executed by the NTSB representative and signed by someone acknowledging his/her receipt of the wreckage This is done in almost ll cases, except those where there is no accessibility to the wreckage, like he ocean floor.

Part II of the wreckage release form will include a detailed list of any parts or components of the wreckage that will be retained by the NTSB for further examination.

Note that the release of wreckage is decided by the investigating authority and it may be kept in storage, if necessary.

There should be no pressure to release all of the on-scene wreckage. Often it is better to arrange for wreckage removal and storage and to retain control of the wreckage in case there is a need to examine it later.

In some cases, the investigating authority will go to great lengths to transfer the wreckage to their place, so as to carry out full investigation. This happened in the case of TWA 800 investigation, where the wreckage was picked up from seafloor and reconstructed to investigate criminal activity.

Image from the NTSB aircraft accident report (NTSB/AAR-00/03) fig. 29, page 102, via Wikimedia Commons.

Another thing is that the disposal of wreckage is a costly business when its done. This is where the size and location of the wreckage comes in. Most of aircraft wreckage would be aluminum scrap, usually too expensive to move and too uneconomical to use elsewhere. Obviously there's a difference between a 747 wreckage downtown and a R-22 wreckage in a remote hill (I'm taking about wreckage disposal, not investigation here). The disposal is done either by the owner/insurer or the investigating authority, with the owner/insurer coughing up. From Singapore Investigation of Accidents Statute:

If a person to whom custody of the aircraft, parts, wreckage or contents is to be released refuses to take custody thereof or fails to take custody within a reasonable period, the aircraft, parts, wreckage or contents may be disposed of in such manner as the Chief Inspector considers fit.

The expenses incurred by the Chief Inspector in disposing of the aircraft, parts, wreckage or contents shall be borne by the owner or operator of the aircraft and be recoverable from either or both of hem.

Most other countries have similar rules. As for reusing the contents in the wrecked aircraft, this is usually not permitted (though it depends on the operator/regulator rules). In case it is permitted, the LRU logbook should contain details about it being in an accident and in general, they are sent to OEMs for tests and recertificaiton. Some companies do trade in salvaged aircraft.

And finally the 'stuff' is sometimes left to salvage for whoever wants it- it may be the most economical thing to do, after all.

• And sometimes parts remain on site for decades. I've stumbled across two sites in the hills hereabouts where there are some parts, identifiable as such by anyone familiar with small planes. – jamesqf Sep 29 '16 at 4:44
• In many areas of the Rockies there are many aircraft wrecks littering the mountains. Often the investigators will remove just the minimum necessary to get their job done. If the pilot survived and could clearly explain that he got caught in a downdraft (a very common occurrence) that pushed him into the mountainside there's no reason to waste time and money trying to retrieve the wreck. In these cases, the wreck gets painted with a big orange X so the next time there's a search and rescue operation they can identify it as an old wreck. – Gerry Sep 29 '16 at 12:12
• @Gerry What could I search to see some pictures of those big X marked plane crash sites? – Ksery Dec 22 '17 at 17:41

There are a few questions here so Ill address them individually (this also varies by jurisdiction).

For similar reference you should read up on Lauda Air Flight 004 which lead to a similar situation.

First off an aircraft accident (at the moment it happens) becomes an open investigation. It is a crime to tamper with aircraft wreckage (this includes simply moving it (which you can do if you feel there is danger as a result of it)). If you come across a wreck you should leave it as is. But none the less, generally speaking the FAA/NTSB will be called to the site to begin the investigation post crash. Its important to find out what happened and why it happened incase there is a defect to the aircraft that needs to be dealt with. In many cases the investigators will remove the wreck and reassemble it elsewhere to carry out most of their investigation. The site is often photographed and documented before this happens but investigations can take a long time and the process can be tedious. This is the general case and of course the outcomes vary case by case.

So for the investigators on a crash like this, do they travel to the site to inspect the plane, do they retrieve only key pieces, or do they just do without?

There is generally travel to the sight to at least photograph and investigate in more severe accidents, in some cases the NTSB relies on your report alone (if there are survivors or witnesses). In some regards its up to them in terms of removal. with GA incidents the planes are far simpler and the accident causes in some cases are straight forward. If they need to retrieve the whole plane for the investigation and the belive its possible, they will. For example the wreckage of JFK Jr's Piper Saratoga was retrieved from the ocean floor to complete the investigation.

And to what extent does that depend on the size of the plane and number of victims? For example, do they leave the single-engine Piper where it is but haul out pieces of the 747 by helicopter?

Generally none, its important for the NTSB to complete all investigations and they take them all seriously.

Any info you'd like to add on salvage would be appreciated too. Crashed or not, a plane is likely to contain some valuable and undamaged electronics, engine parts, etc. Surely that stuff isn't just left for whoever wants it to salvage.

Generally speaking you cant do this legally. First off most of the parts on the airplane are no longer airworthy (there may be a law about parts that have been in a hull loss accident) but on any note you most likely cant get the logs for the plane and thus cant objectively prove the hours on the airframe (thus the parts are not airworthy).

• Do items like radios require a history and get certified as airworthy the same way airframe parts do? – Carey Gregory Sep 29 '16 at 1:10
• Ron, Good point ill update to reflect. – Dave Sep 29 '16 at 1:34
• most of the parts on the airplane are no longer airworthy There are companies like Dodson Int'I that resell parts and a large part of their stock comes from crashed aircraft. They have a large field covered with wrecked airplanes and helicopters. – TomMcW Sep 29 '16 at 2:22
• Very true there are companies that do it but they have the means/ability/knowledge to obtain the logs and deal with the paperwork. One can not simply pull a part off a wreck in the woods and sell it per say. – Dave Sep 29 '16 at 2:46
• It's important for the NTSB to complete all investigations and they take them all seriously. In principle true, but the NTSB takes major accidents (airliners) much more seriously. Partly this is because small aircraft have accidents much more often, but also because crashers of airliners have much more public attention. As for getting the aircraft logs... the logbooks are often not kept in the plane and therefore would usually survive a crash, even if the pilot didn't. – fluffysheap Sep 29 '16 at 4:43