On the hunt: Aviation archaeology holds fascination for history detective

July 8, 2011 10:05:00 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


If science crossed Indiana Jones with a relentless research librarian, the result might turn out to be Dave Trojan. The new Columbus resident is a history detective, a hunter, a tireless student of aviation. 


One week, the retired Navy aviation electronics technician might pour through archival files in Washington, D.C. The next, he's just as likely to be side-stepping rattlesnakes in a desert or trekking to remote mountain crash sites in search of answers. 


Trojan is an aviation archaeologist, dedicated to the pursuit of finding, documenting, recovering and preserving sites important in aviation history. And if his avocation makes a life-affirming difference in a few families' lives along the way, he sees that as an honor. 


For Dave, it began on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, when he was enrolled in graduate study after obtaining a degree in professional aeronautics, with a minor in safety, from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. 


"I came across some aircraft wreckage out hiking in the jungle, and it just fascinated me," he explained. "I started researching and discovered, to my amazement, there's not just one, there's actually hundreds. ... I was hooked right away, wondering where are they, what are they and why are they here?"  




Before it's gone 


So, what is it about rusty, crusty wreckage that captivates this 49-year-old's imagination? 


"As long as people have been flying, there have been mishaps. Countless aircraft unexpectedly fell to the earth during the history of aviation, but remarkably few of the crash sites have been accurately documented," said Trojan, who arrived in Columbus about two months ago, when his wife, Capt. Christine Sargent-Trojan, a nurse, was assigned to Columbus Air Force Base. "I want to find the whole story, the one that's never been published, the little obscure facts."  


For Dave and others like him, it's imperative to record sites before they disappear due to development, before decomposing elements have their ultimate way, before eyewitnesses are lost. His primary interests are wrecks dating back to the World Wars. 


"There's also a connection to heroic times. The remains of an aircraft remind us of warriors and battles fought for freedom," he stressed.  


The oldest site he's investigated was a civilian plane that went down in 1938. The most recent, a military jet lost in 2008.  


"I'm not an expert on every plane, but as I investigate, I try to make myself as familiar with them as I can, so I can recognize rivet patterns, markings, parts ... " said Dave, who has been invited to give lectures for the Civil Air Patrol, Federal Aviation Administration, American Aviation Historical Association and many others. 


Each and every site yields a new history lesson and -- sometimes -- reaches across generations in a remarkable way. 






On Jan. 29, 1938, a Stinson Reliant SR-9C, a small passenger plane, went down in a snowstorm in the Oak Creek Canyon region of Arizona. On board were aircraft designer and engineer Gerard "Jerry" Vultee and his wife, Sylvia.  


Vultee was significant in America's early aviation. Under his direction, the first low-wing commercial planes with retractable landing gear were produced in this country. He built crafts for Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. Vultee was only 38, and his wife just 27, when their fated plane crashed into a mesa and caught fire.  


Their 6-month-old son, Peter, never got to know his parents. But on June 30, less than two weeks ago -- and 73 years after the crash -- he walked a rugged trail to that mesa. Dave Trojan was at his side. It was Dave's fourth visit to the site, and the most significant. For him, accompanying family members to a location he's investigated, bringing them some sense of closure, is a public service. 


"It's a very special emotional moment. It's very rewarding. ... I'm just really acting as a guide," he said, deflecting attention. "I can help ID pieces of the plane and kind of walk them through the accident, as I understand it. There's a lot of mystery behind some crashes, especially the old ones. I study evidence at the site and say, this is what I believe happened." 


Before leaving the craggy mesa, Trojan dug a hole and put up a white site marker he'd made himself. It's something he's felt compelled to do at several locations before. The markers commemorate those lost and briefly tell what happened there for others who come later.  


He personally absorbs the expense of all his investigations, the markers, the research, the travel. 


"To help the families understand what happened, that's a really wonderful gift he can give to them," said Trojan's wife, Christine, a former Army helicopter pilot. 




Mississippi hunt 


Dave threw himself into Mississippi's aviation history even before he crossed the state line. His computer is filled with dozens of statewide accidents, all chronicled with dates, type of aircraft, serial numbers, pilot's name and approximate site. 


"I'm often just amazed that we find these things," he said, noting an accident site vaguely described as "12 miles north of Starkville." Being part adventurer is essential when it comes to pinpointing many sites. After painstaking records research, which often starts with archived newspaper and military accounts, it's often a matter of covering the miles, frequently on foot. 


Advances in Internet searches and GPS have helped substantially. A major tool is the network of about 300 other enthusiasts around the country who share information. 


Even in the short months Trojan has been in Mississippi, he's completed projects involving a T-6 crash in Mantee, a C-53 relic in Petal, and the Charles Lindbergh landing in Maben. 




Those magnificent men 


On May 18, 1923, Lindbergh landed his "Jenny" northeast of the small town of Maben, damaging his propeller. He waited there for a new one, then spent several days selling excursion rides at $5 each to defray his expenses. 


"I wanted to see if I could discover more about that event," said Dave. He did. Through research he unearthed firsthand accounts by Lindbergh himself, as well as eyewitnesses. 


His findings were recorded in a detailed document. A copy was donated to the library in Maben. The account includes rare photographs Lindbergh took of his damaged plane on the ground in Oktibbeha County, courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.  


Trojan would very much like to find photographs of Lindbergh or his plane in Maben taken by local residents. 


"I'm also looking for the broken propeller that he must have left behind," he added. "People in Maben, and in Mississippi, have been so friendly, willing to help out." he praised. "That's not always the case. Now Maben is considering putting on a little festival around the visit; I'll assist them any way I can. That's a direction I didn't expect." 




On deck 


Trojan's other ongoing projects are a 1967 T-2 Buckeye crash at the Naval Air Station in Meridian, a P-38 crash in Starkville in 1951, and the World War I Payne Air Field near West Point. He would also like to research 31 airmen from Columbus Air Force Base who were killed in action during World War II. 


His mission is to document as much aviation history in the area as possible while here. 


"I ask for public help in locating the exact location of old pre-World War through 1950s crash sites," he implored. "Also, photos of aircraft crashes and eyewitness accounts of old accidents ... perhaps someone has parts from a crashed plane or wreckage.  


"I want to help anyone who has an old piece of an aircraft and wants to identify it. And I want to help anyone learn the story of their family members involved in an aircraft accident if I can," he said. Email Trojan at [email protected] 


He feels an obligation to share history, to encourage the public to value historic aviation sites, and how important it is to document them. 


"These sites," he said, "tell the story of America," especially those that speak fro

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.