Volume 11 Number 4
December 31, 1995
Burning Bright
Great Hammer, Lousy Screwdriver
Movable Places
When An Airplane Is More Than An Airplane
Correction – Maybe
Great Hammer, Lousy Screwdriver


In the last issue of TIGHAR Tracks (Vol. 11, No. 3) we described the frustrated and frustrating efforts of the National Park Service to deal with the question of aviation historic preservation. The initial draft version of a new federal publication, National Register Bulletin #25 Guidelines for Evaluating and Documenting Historic Aviation Properties sought to present a brief recap of American aviation history and provide guidance for applying the National Register’s criteria to aviation-related properties, including aircraft. Circulated in the historic preservation and aviation historical communities for review and comment, the draft bulletin elicited such a storm of criticism that its September 1995 publication deadline was abandoned. TIGHAR has been active in encouraging the Park Service to take the time to get it right and, in the last TIGHAR Tracks, we published our suggested re-write of the bulletin’s history section (see “Aviation In American History-A Preservation Perspective” in TIGHAR Tracks Vol. 11., No. 3). For this issue of TIGHAR Tracks we struggled (and struggled) to come up with a suggested rewrite of the bulletin’s section entitled “Evaluating the Integrity of Historic Aviation Properties.” The problem lies in trying to define what constitutes a historic airplane using a system of criteria designed to define historic properties of a very different nature-sort of like trying to use a hammer as a screwdriver.


Movable Places


It is important to understand that the National Register was never designed to be a catalog of all the historic things in America. Indeed, museum objects are not generally considered to be eligible for inclusion. The Register is, instead, a way of investing places and things which might otherwise be discarded, destroyed or developed with a special status which encourages their preservation, building a virtual museum around something that can’t or shouldn’t be moved. The National Register’s evaluation standards are, therefore, easily adapted to hangars, airfields or even navigational aids such as airway beacon towers.

In addition to “places,” certain “objects” such as statues, ships, trolleycars, railroad cars, and airplanes have generally been considered eligible for inclusion in the register. Automobiles, interestingly enough, have always been excluded. The rationale would seem to be that historic objects (cars, carriages, kitchen chairs, etc.) that can be preserved in museums, should be; while those which cannot should be afforded National Register protection. It’s a good principle but it does seem that the line has been poorly drawn.

Clearly, for some objects museum preservation is not an option. Removing the statue of a general from the park which bears his name is inappropriate. Likewise, putting a battleship in a museum is pretty tough so it makes sense to call it a movable historic “place” and give it National Register recognition. However, for those categories of objects, especially vehicles of one kind or another, which can realistically be afforded museum protection, the question of National Register eligibility becomes inherently contradictory: it must be historic to be in the Register, but if it’s historic it should be in a museum and museum objects are not eligible for inclusion in the Register. Many of the objects now listed in the Register are, in fact, in museums (where they belong). In the nearly thirty years since the Register was begun, only six airplanes have been listed and four of them are now in museums.


When An Airplane Is More Than An Airplane


An aircraft (or a trolley car or a locomotive, for that matter) does not belong on the National Register of Historic Places except in cases where its historical significance is inextricably linked to a specific non-museum location. Although there may be others, the examples which come to mind are historic crash sites such as the two WWII wrecks, a B-24 and a P-38, now listed in the Register. Located on remote Aleutian islands, the significance of these sites as weather-related crashes so tragically typical of the Aleutian Campaign is greater than the importance of the aircraft themselves as examples of their WWII types. Because removing the aircraft from the site would destroy the context whch gives them significance, National Register recognition seems appropriate. The same is true of underwater wrecks. If the significance resides more in the relationship of the object(s) to the place, than in the airplane as a stand-alone object, National Register recognition and protection is merited. Over time, just as with a battlefield, the physical relics will inevitably degrade, but the point is to preserve the memory of what happened here.

With Bulletin #25 the Park Service has an opportunity to make needed adjustments and put the National Register of Historic Places to work in the interest of aviation historic preservation. TIGHAR is ready to help in any way we can.

Correction — Maybe


Robert Taylor, President of the Antique Airplane Association, says we “really failed our WWI test” when we stated in “Aviation In American History–A Preservation Perspective” (TIGHAR Tracks Vol. 11., No. 3.) that “no American-designed aircraft saw action in W.W.I.” Mr. Taylor sent reference material to support his observation that Curtiss “Small America” and “Large America” flying boats were used by the Royal Naval Air Service “as early as 1915 and into 1918. The improved version of the Curtiss H-12 designated the H-16 also served in the R.N.A.S. with Liberty engines with 69 being delivered to England by Curtiss as of October 1918.” In our own defense we would suggest that the question of whether or not our statement was in error depends upon whether any of those flying boats saw “action.” (Certainly the American-designed Curtiss JN4-D, the legendary “Jenny,” saw service as a trainer, but not action in combat.) If any of those Curtiss-designed flying boats fired shots in anger or perhaps tangled with U-boats then we’re guilty of omitting the exception that, frankly, proves our point that the Great War was fought by airplanes of other than American design.


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