Red tape leaving Yukon’s wartime artifacts to rot: salvor

A hotspot for Second World War air crashes, the Yukon continues to hold one of North America's richest bounties of wrecks. Dozens of semi-intact planes remain preserved in ice-cold lakes, far from the prying hands of vandals or souvenir hunters.

A hotspot for Second World War air crashes, the Yukon continues to hold one of North America’s richest bounties of wrecks.

Dozens of semi-intact planes remain preserved in ice-cold lakes, far from the prying hands of vandals or souvenir hunters.

For anybody with a crane and a love of vintage aviation, the Yukon is a mecca.

But none of them are worth the trouble of pulling out, said Blake Smith, an BC-based author and aircraft historian specializing in the Second World War aviation of Whitehorse and Watson Lake.

“I don’t see it as worth getting caught up in all the red tape,” he said.

In the spring, Alberta brothers Brian and John Jasman were approached by the Watson Lake RCMP shortly after they successfully pulled a B-26 nose cone from the bottom of Watson Lake.

The wreck was seized and the brothers given a court date.

Jeff Hunston, the Yukon’s manager of heritage resources, sees himself as protecting territorial artifacts from the hands of rapacious salvage pirates.

“Bottom line on this; people are making money, that’s where it stops and where it ends,” said Hunston.

Salvors are out to snatch Yukon relics just to “make a few fast bucks,” he said.

Yet even Hunston admits there’s not much value in a B-26 nose cone.

Andrew Boehoy, archivist for the B-26 Marauder Historical Society, agrees.

“I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily a gold mine or anything like that,” he said.

Even as the Yukon government expends legal fees taking the Jasmans to court, the heritage branch has no plans to conduct its own salvages of Yukon wartime artifacts.

The Jasmans’ B-29 continues to lie under a tarp in Watson Lake. There are no plans to restore it, said Hunston.

Yukon wrecks are “finite resources” that need to be managed properly, he said.

They may be more finite than the government thinks.

While cold water is known to do wonders for preserving aircraft, in another “20 years,” most Yukon wrecks will have decayed beyond repair, said Smith.

Looming aircraft decay is “salvor’s mythology,” said Hunston.

“It’s designed to stampede management authorities into approving yanking these things,” he said.

Besides, there might be some value in leaving wrecks to rust.

Hunston criticized past efforts to clear the Klondike gold fields of decaying gold-rush-era mining equipment.

“We don’t want a sterile landscape, clinically cleaned of all evidence of human use,” said Hunston.

Last year, BC-based salvor Ryan Worthington approached Hunston with a proposal to salvage nine Yukon wrecks.

In return, the Yukon government would get a fully restored P-63 Kingcobra, a restored engine and a munitions display.

“We’d get eight crashed planes—they’d get one museum-grade plane,” said Worthington.

The Yukon government rejected the offer.

A battered Airacobra door and a fuel drop tank are currently the Yukon Transportation Museum’s only relics of Second World War aviation.

While it would be “really nice” to have a reconstructed wartime aircraft in a Yukon museum, Hunston feared he would be shortshrifted on the deal.

The Yukon could find itself with something that isn’t a vintage plane, while Worthington walked out with a bounty of well-preserved wrecks.

“We’re not providing a blank cheque to anybody on these things,” said Hunston.

Worthington was told to come back with a comprehensive list of everything he planned to salvage—and then heritage would make a decision in the “best interests of the Yukon.”

“He’s not the one that determines that; we are the ones,” said Hunston.

But like any modern treasure hunters, aircraft salvors are fiercely protective of wreck locations.

Worthington didn’t want to show his cards until he had a clear deal worked out with Yukon authorities.

“I told him I needed some guarantees that the government wouldn’t take anything away,” he said.

The government made no such assurances.

Dave Harris—a

salvor associate of Worthington’s—knows all too well the perils of wantonly revealing wreck locations.

Harris was attempting to follow proper procedure in pulling a P-39 Airacobra out of Carpenter Lake, NWT.

While he slogged through legal channels, the renown salvor Gary Larkin swooped in and seized the wreck without approval.

Although intercepted by government agents before he could reach the border, Larkin won the plane in court and whisked it off to a US museum. (Larkin is the inspiration for an upcoming Dreamworks film named, aptly enough, Air Pirates.)

Only five years ago, Newfoundland and Labrador embarked on its own court crusade against a private salvor.

In 2004, the province tried to claim ownership over a sunken B-17 in Dyke Lake.

For 14 years, American millionaire Don Brooks battled the province for the right to haul up the B-17 that had crashed into Dyke Lake without any casualties on Christmas Eve of 1947.

The court finally ruled that the wreck was in navigable waters and was open to salvage.

If the province wanted the plane, they would have to pay the multimillion-dollar salvage costs, said the judge.

The province quickly handed ownership to Brooks.

The Jasman’s court case will play out similarly, said their lawyer Darren Williams, a salvage expert.

The Yukon heritage branch should be welcoming aircraft salvors, rather than turning them away, said Smith.

“I think (Hunston) is concerned that he’s being seen as ineffective,” said Smith.

“If he doesn’t act, then it looks like he doesn’t care, or the government doesn’t care,” he said.

Hunston’s office didn’t know there was a B-26 in Watson Lake until the Jasmans pulled it out.

“We didn’t know there were remnants of the wreck there,” said Hunston.

When presented with the proposal to retrieve the nine wrecks, Hunston didn’t believe they existed, said Worthington.

“I don’t think the Yukon government really knows that much about what’s out there,” said Smith.

The Jasmans located the wreck last summer using side-scanning sonar.

Other scans by Environment Canada and Smith consistently missed the sunken aircraft.

The Yukon government insists it is too tied up in trying to get a handle on what artifacts actually exist.

“We’ve spent considerable money trying to do the first step, which is an inventory of what is actually out there,” said Hunston.

Another “mythology” is that the Yukon is filled with intact planes sitting at the bottoms of lakes, awaiting the salvor’s crane, said Hunston.

“Many of them were hard landings—so what you have is mangled metal,” he said.

Salvors are well aware of the poor state of Yukon wrecks.

Most Yukon wrecks are “hunks of crap that, literally, you can’t save,” said Worthington.

The Jasman B-26 had its fate sealed on January 16, 1942,

when pilot G.S. Stevens snagged it on the edge of the runway as he attempted to land at the Watson Lake airport.

The landing gear crumpled.

The aircraft is widely reported as having been bound for Siberia.

In fact, the bomber was being sent to fortify Alaska against Japanese attack, said Smith.

Believing a mainland invasion was imminent, the US military quickly pumped Alaska full of every form of armament it could handle.

“(Planes) were sent up to Alaska without an awful lot of planning, and with inexperienced crews,” said Smith.

Crashes were common.

After the B-26 tumbled to a halt along the frozen ground, it was found to be damaged beyond repair. The only injury was a broken arm.

The nose cone was stripped of useful parts, and hauled out onto the frozen surface of Watson Lake, where it became a shooting target for bored servicemen.

The fuselage ended its days as a fire-training mockup.

Come spring, the metal remnants of the nose broke through the ice and settled to the bottom of Watson Lake.

Whatever the outcome of their July 17 case, the Jasmans say they would like to see the plane in a Yukon museum.

Hunston thinks they made it up.

“Really? They didn’t open a dialogue with a museum prior to the recovery,” he said.

Contact Tristin Hopper at

tristinh@yukon-news.com

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