Federal prosecutors in Alaska have reached a settlement agreement with a Georgia-based aircraft restoration company that removed pieces of wreckage from a historic crash site south of the Interior city of Fairbanks.
Restoration specialist Edward Thomas Reilly Jr. of Douglas, Ga., paid the U.S. Bureau of Land Management $55,000 to end a five-year investigation surrounding the removal of parts from a military crash site, according to an Alaska U.S. Attorney's office press release.
The "rare" F-82 departed from Ladd Air Force Base, now known as Fort Wainwright, with two other identical aircraft on Jan. 16, 1950. The pilots intended to practice aerial interceptions, but one of the planes crashed on the Tanana Flats near Fairbanks, killing both military pilots aboard.
More than half a century later, in July 2008, salvagers working for Reilly located the crash site and took parts without permission from the BLM, which manages millions of acres of federally owned land in Alaska. The company initially said the wreckage had been lawfully acquired from a Fairbanks junk yard.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Cooper said it's not uncommon for interested individuals to search and salvage plane wrecks in the Bush. However, this case was important because of the type of aircraft -- it was the final propeller-driven fighter plane purchased in bulk by the U.S. Air Force.
"It's a very rare aircraft compared to the other fighters lying around rural Alaska, so BLM -- being the land owner -- decided to make a special effort to get to the bottom of this," Cooper said. All parties agreed that a settlement was the correct course of action, he said.
The Air Force formally abandoned ownership of all aircraft that crashed after November 1961, but that branch of the military and public land policy requires salvagers to get permission to take pieces, and coordinate their efforts with the land owners. The owners in this case are the Department of the Interior and BLM, according to the press release.
The majority of the settlement money will go toward archeological work involved in recovering the rest of the plane's wreckage. Reilly has also agreed to "provide patterns and specifications for the parts it recovered from (the Air Force plane)," which it's reportedly built into another restoration. Prosecutors allowed Reilly to keep the parts.
"If the recovery team goes there and discovers some of the parts that have been taken are scare, nearly impossible to get, we want to ensure we have the specs for reproduction purposes," Cooper said.
The remaining $5,000 from the settlement will serve as a civil penalty; BLM will use the money to further protection efforts of historical aviation lands in Alaska.
Cooper said it's important people learn about this case so they know what to do in a similar situation. Aircraft enthusiasts may spot abandoned but usable wreckage in Alaska wilderness and think it'd be great for a personal project, and that is an innocent idea, he said. They just need to make sure they're meeting all the requirements for salvaging the parts.
"A lot of these military planes are out there, and nothing will likely happen unless a private party takes interest," he said.