by Richard E. Gillespie
In stark contrast to TIGHAR’s work comes news of an aviation historic preservation catastrophe in Papua New Guinea. In May, Boeing B-17E 41-2446, widely known by the regrettable and phoney appellation “Swamp Ghost,” was cut apart and moved from its resting place in the Agaiambo Swamp to the dockyard in Lae. The salvagers, Aero Archeology, had apparently purchased a permit to export the aircraft to the United States from Military Aircraft Restoration Corporation (MARC). MARC had obtained the permit several years ago after reportedly paying $100,000 to PNG museum officials. Aero Archeology LLC thought they had a valid permit to recover and export the aircraft. The government of Papua New Guinea felt otherwise. When the bomber showed up in Lae, it was impounded pending the results of an inquiry by the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee.
Long-time TIGHAR members may recall that, in 1985 and 1986, in cooperation with the Travis Air Force Base Historical Society, we investigated the possibility of recovering this aircraft for the United States Air Force Museum collection. TIGHAR’s executive director Ric Gillespie and president Pat Thrasher traveled to Papua New Guinea and, with Bruce Hoy, head of the aviation section of the National Museum and Art Gallery, did an on-site evaluation of the aircraft. They then met with senior PNG parliamentary officials and the American ambassador about the permissions that would be necessary before a recovery could be approved. Ultimately, to our profound disappointment, the Minister of Culture and Tourism imposed a moratorium on all recoveries of WWII relics. We had no choice but to abandon the project.
Over the years, we came to see the defeat as a blessing in disguise. The aircraft is so historically significant that, if recovered, it should be genuinely conserved rather than subjected to the wholesale rebuilding that was, and is still, all too common in the air museum world. Until the technology, the techniques and the will exist to save the airplane rather than destroy it for the sake of creating a “fully restored” exhibit, we felt that the bomber was better off right where it was.
Now it has been cut apart and removed from the environment that preserved it for sixty-four years. What Aero Archeology LLC intended to do with this priceless artifact is not clear but, like the incredibly well-preserved P-38 that was recovered from under the ice in Greenland and dubbed “Glacier Girl,” the B-17 was almost certainly destined to be converted into a performing replica of itself as fraudulent as its name. It’s export, for whatever purpose, now seems unlikely. The government of Papua New Guinea may have the will, but it does not have the resources, to do what the Agaiambo Swamp did so well for so long. It is difficult now to see a fate for 41-2446 that does not involve its destruction in fairly short order, either from “restorers” if its export is finally approved, or from vandalism and accelerated corrosion if it remains in PNG.