Safety & Legal

As this subject is becoming more and more popular with walkers, genealogists and historians I have decided to include a page about the legal and safety aspects of visiting aircraft crash sites, some of which are unique to this field. On the whole it is more or less common sense but as we seem to be a nation of law makers there are a few odd ones in there to be aware of.

Getting to a Crash Site:

While I don’t publish map references for crash sites on this web site they are widely available for many crash sites in books, such as our own publication, and even elsewhere on the internet. Some references that have been published are better than others with some older references having substantial errors in them. Most people who might consider visiting crash sites may well already have experience of hill walking and navigation away from marked paths, some may even have been to a few crash sites, from my conversations with walkers I have met on the hills it would seem to be mainly by chance.

However, to those novices tempted by photos of some of the more intact or interesting crash sites that we have visited, a few words of warning are required. Even to those who consider themselves to have a fair level of experience, some of the areas we have visited feature the most demanding conditions for hill walking, one site would almost certainly require an overnight stop in a tent on the hill (I did it as part of a longer walk spending a couple of nights out in the wilds). The nature of the terrain, remoteness and often changeable and extreme weather conditions, should not be underestimated. On the highest ground of Scotland, the Lake District and Wales snow is not uncommon in Mid-summer, I have seen this below 3,000ft in Scotland in June and Atlantic storms do not come as recommended conditions to be out in. I spent a miserable day on a mountain being battered by one a number of years ago I would not wish to repeat the experience.

When planning any trip always ensure that maps and guidebooks that you use are up-to-date and be prepared to take note of local information, as there may be restrictions in place while work is carried out and during breeding or shooting seasons etc. For navigation, map reading and compass skills are essential even if on an easy walk they seem unnecessary, a GPS can be a useful tool but while they may be useful for checking your position they should not be solely relied upon as a primary means of navigation they tend not to take too much notice of the presence of features like cliffs and lakes so punching in a location and saying go can cause all sorts of fun if you leave your map at home.

Finally, make sure that you are suitably equipped for the prevailing conditions and have sufficient food and water to last you to beyond the end of your day. Don’t be afraid of giving up if conditions change no matter how tempting that last few hundred feet may seem, it is better to get home and return another day than end up in trouble.

Access Regulations
Open Access (England & Wales)

From 2004 onwards areas of England & Wales became ‘Access Land’ under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (CRoW), this Act created new rights of access for people to walk in areas of open country. This has become known as the ‘right to roam’ and covers mapped areas of mountain, moorland, downland, heathland and registered common land, giving the general public the chance to legally explore large tracts of land beyond pre-existing rights of way for the first time. All new editions of Ordnance Survey Explorer (Orange covers) series maps have been updated to show these areas.

Most recreational activities are permitted on access land. However there are restrictions, some only applicable to protected areas and others only enforced at certain times. Details of these are published by the Countryside Agency and National Park Authorities. By taking note of any signs, following warnings / restrictions and adhering to the Countryside Code visitors should not have any problems. Most of the restrictions that are in force are the same across the country and these include: Camping, cycling, horse riding, driving or riding of any vehicle, lighting or tending a fire and using a metal detector. That said these activities may be carried out with the consent of an individual landowner on their land even if it is access land.

The Countryside Code:

The Countryside Code has been a feature of outdoor activities for many years now and is an advisory code of conduct for anyone visiting the countryside in England and Wales. The full code is published by the Countryside Agency and the Countryside Council for Wales. The basis of the code is the following points:

  • Be safe, plan ahead and follow any signs
  • Leave gates and property as you find them
  • Protect plants and animals and take your litter home
  • Keep dogs under close control
  • Consider other people
Outdoor Access Code (Scotland):

The situation regarding access is different in Scotland, but people are still able to exercise a right of access which was by the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003. It differs from England and Wales by allowing access to virtually everything that isn’t explicitly private or secured (e.g. private gardens, ports and military establishments). As in the rest of the UK there are some restrictions, these are mainly related to use of land for shooting / deer stalking and land management works (such as felling of forestry). Signs may be placed locally requesting that people contact the landowner during certain periods of the year or a centralised agent such as the Scottish Natural Heritage Hillphones scheme.

Scotland also has its own version of the Countryside Code in the Outdoor Access Code, in brief this is:

  • Take personal responsibility for your own actions and act safely
  • Respect people’s privacy and peace of mind
  • Help land managers and others to work safely and effectively
  • Care for your environment and take your litter home
  • Keep dogs under proper control
  • Take extra care if you’re organising an event or running a business
Conduct at Crash Sites and the Law:

Many people, it seems, regard aircraft crash sites as war graves, though in fact only a very small number of sites on high ground have this status. Despite the conditions experienced during wartime, frequent lack of adequate equipment and the sheer remoteness of some lost aircraft, great efforts were often made by the military authorities and sometimes even civilians to ensure the recovery of deceased aircrew and only very rarely were their remains interred at crash sites.  Such sites tend to be clearly marked as war graves, for example Anson N9857 near Inchnadamph, though some still remain almost unmarked. We should hardly have to say that these, and for that matter all sites where fatalities occurred should be treated with the utmost respect. Most crash sites still have a sombre atmosphere about them that many visitors are sensitive to and may still wish to pay their respects.

As with many other things in life government legislation was introduced which does have an effect upon people visiting the crash sites of military aircraft, this being the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 (PMRA). This was brought in as a private members bill after a number of fairly high profile recoveries from war graves, mainly from ship wrecks in coastal waters such as HMS Hampshire off Orkney.

All crash sites of military aircraft in the United Kingdom and in coastal waters are classified as “controlled sites” under the Act. This is regardless of any loss of life which may or may not have occurred. The Act made it an offence to tamper with, damage, move, remove or unearth any items at such sites, unless the Ministry of Defence has issued a licence authorising such activity. These licences are only issued after careful consideration and are normally subject to a number of conditions. This licensing procedure is managed by the Service Personnel & Veterans Agency, Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre (Historic Casualty Casework), Imjin Barracks, Gloucester. GL3 1HW and full details are included in their “Notes for guidance of recovery groups”.

The full text of the legislation can be found via the following link, Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 (c.35).

Until the advent of the PMRA the actual ownership of military aircraft remains, within the UK had been something of a grey area, as despite stating in 1973 that they had abandoned all claim to crashed aircraft remains, the Ministry of Defence later declared that all Crashed UK military aircraft and their equipment remained the property of the Crown until such time as the Ministry of Defence decides to dispose of them. This was then extended to include the remains of crashed enemy aircraft as these were deemed to be captured enemy property. Aircraft from the United States armed forces are still deemed to be the property of the United States Government, but the Ministry of Defence acts as an agent on behalf of the US authorities. However the USAF & USN complicated matters by making statements very similar to the 1973 UK position, though the USN have more recently also changed their position.

Crashed civilian aircraft wrecks are not covered by any of this legislation, though even if they have been abandoned by their original owners or insurers, then it is likely to become the property of the landowner on whose land they are located. Any personal property at crash sites will remain the property of the original owner, if they survived the crash, or their next of kin if deceased.

Hazards of Crash Sites

Aside from the inherent dangers of venturing out into the hills & mountains there are hazards likely to be encountered when visiting aircraft crash sites. Some may be considered obvious and some are just common sense, but to those unfamiliar with the likely assortment of artefacts that may be found at these sites, it is all too easy during the excitement of discovery to unintentionally put themselves or others in potential danger.

Aircraft from the Second World War onwards have tended to be constructed mainly from metals, during crashes this is likely to be twisted and torn. It is all too easy to cut yourself whilst handling such items of wreckage, stainless steel parts are often particularly sharp and as it usually retains its shiny appearance  it often catches the eye of visitors to crash sites so they pick it up to examine it further. As well as a nasty cut, it may be worth bearing in mind the possibility of infection.

Many of the individual parts from an aircraft may be hazardous in their own right, for example undercarriage oleos often contained highly pressurised oil filled shock absorbers and coil springs, oxygen & accumulator bottles as well as fire extinguishers were also by their very nature pressure vessels and some may still contain this pressure. A common material in fireproofing was Asbestos which is often still found at crash sites in a variety of forms. Some parts were also coated with radioactive radium bearing paint, these being dials and instruments. While few and far between on this site, modern aircraft have added a couple of further potential hazards in the form of composite structures made from carbon fibre and fibre glass. Individual fibres from both are more than capable of penetrating the skin.

Perhaps the most obvious hazard that may be present at a crash site is ammunition, yet despite this many people it seems underestimate the danger with a bullet being seen by some as a suitable souvenir. However ammunition, including small arms, contains explosives that may well have degraded and become unstable. Bullets were often produced in incendiary and tracer forms which contained phosphorus and if still present will spontaneously ignite when exposed to oxygen. Larger calibre cannon and heavy machine gun ammunition may well have high explosive tips containing extreme volatile Mercury Fulminate. A few crash sites may even contain bombs or depth charges, I have seen parts from practice bombs at one site, though these appeared to have exploded on impact or in the post crash fire. It should be noted that even practice bombs contained explosive charges greater than those found in land mines, normally in the region of a few pounds. Also many areas of high ground throughout the UK were used for military training ranges during the wartime period and live mortar shells and other munitions on the moors around crash sites are not unknown, and I myself have found such items.