Naval History Group’s Display Aircraft Inspection Initiative Safeguards Valuable Artifacts

Public displays of US Navy aircraft, spanning a sixty-year history from WWII to Desert Storm, demonstrate the technological advancements that have made our country’s air power the most formidable force on earth. Yet, until 2014, the Department of Defense (DOD) had not been briefed on the condition of approximately 1,200 static historical displays of Navy aircraft on loan to 256 borrowers globally. That year, NCMS launched a multi-phase CTMA collaboration, “Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) Display Aircraft Inspection Initiative.” The project ensured that historical Navy aircraft on display at various public and military installations were effectively maintained in a condition that protects public safety and inspires respect for Naval history, in part by leveraging the aircraft inspection expertise of Wounded Warriors.

The project brought together experts from the DOD’s Naval History and Historical Command (NHHC), Naval Reserve Units, and Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), along with several additional participants: The Columbia Group (TCG), Wounded Warrior Detachments, original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) of Naval artifacts and aircraft, and the institutions displaying these items. NHHC is charged with preserving and protecting artifacts that best embody US Naval history and heritage for present and future generations. NHHC authorized the development of an inspection program, and NHHC hired a Wounded Warrior as a full-time employee who became trained as an inspector, database manager, and radiation safety officer.

The project team created the Static Display Aircraft Inspection Program (SDAIP), which identified sustainment requirements for heritage aircraft. Additionally, the team designed program instruction, inspection, quality assurance (QA) processes, and inspector training. To ensure the safety of static display aircraft—some of which are on pedestals, while others rest on the ground, or on landing gear—inspectors must be able to successfully identify corrosion specific to lightweight aircraft metals and discrepancies in critical loaded areas (trunnions, struts, bogies, wheels, tires, and tail hooks) that could result in material failure and potential harm to visitors. Also, at some point, these historic aircraft will reach the end of their lifecycle and will no longer be safe for display, so the program covers how to mitigate potential environmental concerns associated with disposing of each individual artifact or aircraft model (e.g., PCBs, composites, cadmium-plated items, asbestos, and instrument gages containing low-level radioactive materials).

After training inspectors, the team launched a pilot program in Florida that validated all the processes and began an initial inspection of 72 aircraft. Inspectors found that 58 (82%) were either in “Excellent” or “Good” condition, while 14 (18%) were in either “Poor” or “Neglected” condition. Inspectors searched for hazardous materials: radiological devices; petroleum, oil, and lubricants (POL); and live ordnance. Five percent of the inspected aircraft had some quantity of fuel on board that required defueling the aircraft and, in two instances, they removed CLASS 3 ordnance.

In Phase Two, the team refined the Static Display Aircraft Inspection Program (SDAIP) by creating an Inspection Guide—a 17-page manual that inspectors can carry and refer to while conducting inspections. In addition, they developed a HAZMAT informational pamphlet, and a collaborative integrated data environment (IDE) fleet database that documents the condition of loaned artifacts and aircraft, potential safety risks, environmental hazards, and the appropriate sustainment program for each item.

While creating these materials, inspectors examined 333 aircraft nationwide. Inspectors found that 205 aircraft (65%) were either in “Excellent” or “Good” condition, while 109 (35%) were in either “Poor” or “Neglected” condition. One inspector identified an aircraft with a potentially dangerous radiological device, which enabled NHHC to coordinate the expeditious removal of the device and to mandate the immediate inspection of the same aircraft at other institutions. Due to this finding, the team created a segment in the instructor training course to teach how to identify these types of devices.

The successful completion of this project in 2016 resulted in the inspections of approximately one-third of the loaned aircraft, and the Navy developed a plan to complete the remaining aircraft inspections. The resources created in this project, including inspection templates and training manuals, will be used for the entire fleet. This CTMA initiative demonstrated to multiple stakeholders—especially the public and private museums that display heritage aircraft and artifacts—how to best preserve these items and properly dispose of them at the end of their useful life. The lessons learned can be employed at other facilities tasked with providing safe, long-term storage and “mothballing” of legacy equipment. In fact, the maintenance and sustainment criteria developed under this initiative was made available for use by NCMS members and other organizations that hold heritage equipment. The fleet database will enable the Navy to include information on future artifacts and aircraft for static displays.