The Dornier 17 was a mainstay of the Battle of Britain; large numbers of the light bomber were used to attack the British Isles. Known as the "Flying Pencil", no examples were known to have survived the war. That changed in 2008 when divers happened across a nearly intact bomber lying upside down underwater in the Goodwin Sands area of the English Channel. The BBC has been covering the story of the effort to bring it up from the depths for restoration and eventual display. (The 3 BBC links here have some good video clips, which unfortunately do not seem to be set up to allow embedding. Go check them out.)
Underwater footage of the wreck shows it largely intact. Some parts are missing - the bomb bay doors, the cockpit glazing, the undercarriage doors. Probably these were torn off during the forced landing. But the fuselage, the wings, the engines and propellers are still there. And so is the landing gear, complete with fully inflated tyres.The task is complicated by the local conditions. Although it's only about 50 feet down, divers can only work during periods of slack tide - otherwise the currents are too strong. Divers are going to have to build a framework around the aircraft before it can be lifted from the bottom, a framework which may have to be modified depending on how strong the surviving pieces are, and how easily sand can be moved out of the way. The BBC is reporting that salvage efforts are underway. It's expected to take at least 3 weeks.
But Bob Peacock, the local diver and marine archaeologist who first found the wreck and shot the footage, says it's in a delicate condition. Lifting and conserving it won't be easy.
At the German Technical Museum in Berlin, they have considerable experience of raising WWII planes from water. The museum's Prof Holger Steinle showed me the aluminium tail section of a Focke Wulf Condor. It was unrecognisable, badly eaten away, and held together largely by the limpets and barnacles attached to it.
Dorniers too, he says, were made of aluminium, which corrodes badly in sea water. He warns his colleagues in Britain not to expect too much. "In 20, 30 years you will find nothing from that Dornier. So try it. But you should not be highly optimistic. Do it, but don't start dreaming too early."
Preservation once the aircraft can be brought to shore is expected to take at least 18 months - and that's only an estimate. The BBC report by Nick Higham has additional details:
But Dr Mary Ryan at Imperial College London is more optimistic. She's the scientist drafted in by the RAF Museum to find a way of halting the plane's corrosion, and stabilising it for the long-term. Working with one small fragment already salvaged, her team have found that soaking it in a mixture of fresh water and citric acid - lemon juice - cleans the metal and stops the corrosion.If all goes well, the aircraft could be on display in two years at Hendon. The plane's final flight is described in a BBC video here.
So the museum has built two polytunnels at its conservation centre at Cosford in the West Midlands, and equipped them with a system of spray nozzles. For the next 18 months the two halves of the aircraft - wings and fuselage - will be drenched in citric acid for 10 minutes out of every 30.