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Charles Darby
Author, Wrecks and Aircraft Restorer

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Charles Darby in P-40N A29-448

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Darby in cockpit

Tell a little about yourself, and your background
Born in England in 1942, first clear aircraft memories are of a row of Stirlings stored in a field, and of climbing into an Oxford at an active base in southern England. Interested in aircraft as long as I can recall, but first flight was not until 1954 in BEA's Dakota G-AGJW, followed by flights in PanAm DC4s, CPA DC6s, Qantas Super Connies etc . Came to New Zealand in 1955, and lived in a house under the Whenuapai Air Base circuit, so was able to watch the Harvards, Hastings, Freighters, & Avenger target tugs, and visiting Lincolns, Lancasters, Stratocruisers, Connies etc. The mighty Sunderlands from 5 Squadron and the Maritime Conversion Unit operated from the water at the end of our street, where many a school day was spent watching them doing conversion training.

What got you interested in WWII aircraft?
Read ReviewI learned about the dump areas near Rukuhia airfield in New Zealand, and spent many days investigating the 102 P-40 hulks (plus three Corsairs and two Hudson fuselages) that were all that was left of the hundreds of RNZAF wartime aircraft scrapped there. By the early 1960s those visits had led to a decision to acquire a P-40 "for restoration", a story told in greater detail in a new book The Whole Nine Yards - Story of an Anzac P-40 by well-known New Zealand author John King.

The PNG connection started with my father, who managed coconut plantations in the Ninigo Islands off the north coast of New Guinea in the 1930s (in addition to doing many other interesting jobs in his life). His stories of New Guinea and collection of the bird of paradise stamps from that time ensured that I wanted to see the place for myself, which I did for the first time in 1963/64.

When did you begin visiting wrecks and photographing them?
In the early 1960s, visiting dumps and wreck sites was the only way to see wartime aircraft or parts thereof - there was no warbirds movement then, no "gate-guards", no air force museums, even the War Memorial Museum in Auckland didn't have any aircraft on display. And the idea of private owners flying Catalinas, Kittyhawks, Meteors, Vampires, B-17s, B-25s etc was so far-fetched that it never even occurred to most people interested in aircraft. And there were no serious "warbird" reference books either. Not one. Not until 1964, when Harleyford published their "Aircraft Camouflage and Markings". That was like publication of the Bible!! Young men such as Don Subritsky, John Smith and myself who haunted dumps and wreck sites and collected derelict hulks of P-40s or whatever were regarded as more than a little strange - feelings which commonly turned to serious green-eyed jealousy and vindictiveness on the part of their one-time detractors a quarter of a century later.

Read ReviewHow did "Pacific Aircraft Wrecks" book start?
The book was prepared at the suggestion of Geoff Pentland who, even back in the mid-1970s, felt that the subject and the title he conceived for the book would be a winner. Geoff was founder and Governing Director of the greatly-respected Kookaburra Technical Publications, a publishing house that focused on top-quality material and top-quality printing standards.

Most of the photos were taken in the course of locating, identifying, and working on the recovery of derelict warbirds in PNG and the Solomons for David Tallichet's Yesterday's Air Force [Today, known as MARC Military Aircraft Restoration Company]. The operations were planned as a consequence of a surprise phone call to me in New Zealand from David Tallichet in the USA. I set up an exploration trip, identified the aircraft locations, and organized the subsequent main recovery operation, and David assigned one of his workers, Monty Armstrong, to head up the on-site dismantling and recovery work with my assistance.

In the course of these operations about 30 aircraft were recovered including P-40s, P-39s, an A-20, Boomerangs, and Spitfires We had a most interesting and challenging year of work that resulted in the recovery of P-40s that are now flying in New Zealand and Australia, and in a couple of years perhaps also in the USA a Beaufort on display at the RAF Museum in London, and of course other aircraft that are on display or under restoration at locations throughout Australia and the USA.

Speak a little about the research and histories of the wrecks
Aircraft identification was based on my own records and research, most of which was obviously - derived from the evidence remaining on, in, and around the aircraft themselves. Bruce Hoy had not appeared in PNG at that time, hence was not a factor. Bill Chapman, who started the Air Museum of PNG, was a great character to talk with, as was his wife Arna whose family had a long-term connection with PNG aviation through Papuan Airlines. They were also, of course, the predominant facilitators in making it possible at government level to salvage the aircraft that we did. However, they had virtually no input into investigating the history of individual aircraft.

Any interesting anecdotes about making the book?
An early lesson was to take all possible steps to understand what I was dealing with. As an example, walking up to the sad remains of yet another crashed "Betty", noticing some unusual early-war camouflage colours on fabric fragments and becoming aware of other non-standard features without really registering what they actually were, then finally realizing that I was looking at one of the exceedingly rare Mitsubishi G6M1s.

Another lesson was not to rely on other people's aircraft identification skills. During many visits to a certain area over 20 years, I didn't bother to walk out to the well-known shattered remains of a "B-24" that was said to have disintegrated in the air and crashed "behind the hill". One afternoon, with nothing else to do, I decided to go take a look at the bits of scrap metal that were supposed to be lying in the forest. And found that it was actually a US Navy TDR-1, the Allies' first purpose-built unmanned bomber or "guided missile", that had been shot down on an operational mission against a Japanese radar station.

Another lesson was never to believe that "there is nothing left there". After weeks of work involving dozens of people at the American end of one of the Tadji strips, with all the aircraft we wanted already recovered, all our equipment removed, and all personnel gone, I stayed behind to do one last scour of the area for dropped tools etc. And found a large dump of corroding antipersonnel bombs stretching for several yards (OK, metres) within inches (cm, if you insist) of our main vehicle access track into the area. Then it started to rain, and since there were no more aircraft to use as shelter I moved into the regrowth scrub beside where the now-recovered aircraft had been. And there was a complete P-39N named "Small Fry". Same thing happened at Nadzab: "experts" told us there was nothing left, but we found the remains of 22 aircraft in one single afternoon, several of which were salvaged.

Pacific Aircraft Wrecks alludes to a followup book
The allusion to a second book was one of Geoff's promotional ideas, but the reality is more elusive! The book has not been written, but the idea has not entirely been abandoned. Would it be worth it? Would many people like to see previously-unpublished detail photos of the aircraft remains, triple-A batteries, Japanese radar stations, coast defence guns and so on? There's no more "complete" aircraft to reveal, unfortunately. Perhaps a start on follow-up books is about to be made with John King's "The Whole Nine Yards", mentioned above, which details the total restoration to airworthy of one of the P-40Ns recovered from PNG during the YAF expeditions. Indeed it is the first of those recovered wrecks to be rebuilt and take to the air again.

As you look at the book today, how do you feel about it?
I am surprised, gratified, and more than a little humble to reflect on the chances and circumstances that came together in such a manner that I was able to do the work that led to the book. That the book is still regarded as definitive after nearly thirty years is both astonishing and sad. Astonishing that no-one has out-performed the results of an operation that, in essence, was planned and carried out by a couple of youngsters barely out of their teens, and sad that the opportunity for others to do so apparently no longer exists. I also reflect, as in so many other fields, on the crass, self-serving stupidity of politicians who forbid the export of war relics in the form of aircraft wrecks, even where such export could result in major gains of war relics restored for national and local collections as well as for the exporters themselves.

What is your opinion about recovery vs. leaving wrecks?
If aircraft relics are recovered they have a chance of survival. The exception is relics in the sea. I am not aware of any process that is within the bounds of economic reason whereby an aircraft can be recovered from the sea and preserved indefinitely, let alone restored to airworthy condition. In that situation I believe it is usually best to leave them in the sea, where they are more likely to survive than if they are dragged ashore. Again there's an exception relics from the sea may provide parts for use as patterns that cannot be found elsewhere, or small parts such as stainless steel items that are still recoverable. Another exception may be where there is literally unlimited long-term funding to decontaminate and preserve an aircraft recovered from the sea.

How do you feel about recovering and buying wreckage?
Very simple. If aircraft relics are recovered they have a chance of survival. If they are left in situ they will, with no shadow of doubt, corrode into the ground if they are not scrapped, bulldozed, or burnt first. The exception is relics in the sea. I am not aware of any process that is within the bounds of economic reason whereby an aircraft can be recovered from the sea and preserved indefinitely, let alone restored to airworthy condition. In that situation I believe it is usually best to leave them in the sea, where they are more likely to survive for a few more decades than if they are dragged ashore. Again there's an exception --- relics from the sea may provide parts for use as patterns that cannot be found elsewhere, or small parts such as stainless steel items that are still recoverable. Another exception may be where there is literally unlimited long-term funding to decontaminate and preserve an aircraft recovered from the sea.

Public collections, on the other hand, have an odious record. This includes government and air force collections and the majority of "committee-run" museums, where the integrity of an asset in terms of its original paint and systems fit and even its existence, depends on the politicians or board members in charge at the time. The American, Australian, Belgian, British, and New Zealand national and/or air force aviation collections all have disgraceful histories of asset destruction and degradation of historical material. And I am talking about the 1980s and 1990s, not "ancient history". Sure, the national collections of those nations have improved their acts in recent years, but suspicion remains because indefensible crimes of asset destruction and "rewritten history" still come to light. Often these events result from the actions of uninterested "time-servers" in positions of authority, where a private individual interested in aviation history would never have acted in such a manner.

Speak about your restoration company, Pacific Aircraft Ltd
I founded Pacific Aircraft Ltd with Jim Pavitt as equal 50% shareholders in the mid-1990s. Warren Denholm was our General Manager/Chief Engineer until he left to set up his own company and Robert McNair our Engineering Foreman. Subsequently we sold the business to Garth Hogan, who re-organised and re-developed it as Pioneer Aero Restorations Ltd. Pacific consisted essentially of some tooling and assembly structures with limited hardware value, but with the critical asset of well-qualified engineering specialists who had become the world's best P-40 restoration team. Today, Robert is still the engineering foreman, and other long-term "inmates" from Pacific days include Callum Smith and Derek Smith (not related) and others who turn up repeatedly on a part-time or temporary basis. I'm now just an interested bystander who helps with parts and tech manuals. Pioneer Aero Restoration is Garth Hogan's company, and restored one of the P-40's recovered from Tadji.

Click For DetailsWhich aircraft you recovered are airworth?
P-40N A29-448 is no longer the only aircraft recovered in the "Pacific Aircraft Wrecks Mission" that is now flying - Murray Griffith's P-40N 42-105915 is now elegantly airworthy again. Next to take the air will probably be John Fallis' P-40N 42-105861 in Lafayette, Louisiana.

Any upcoming writing or WWII related projects upcoming?
I have learned the hard way that it is better to be reticent about upcoming or future projects until such time as they are under way. Ongoing projects include building up a library of technical manuals that can be copied to support restoration projects and ensure that they can be carried out "in accordance with" relevant documentation --- an essential requirement in many civil aviation jurisdictions. Also building up a collection of WW2 airborne radio, radar, elint, ASV and similar systems.

Thank you Mr. Darby for the interview
Read Review of Pacific Aircraft Wrecks.. And Where to Find Them | The Whole Nine Yards

Last Updated
May 22, 2017

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  Pacific Wrecks Inc. is a non-profit 501(c)(3) charity dedicated to bringing home those Missing In Action (MIA) and leveraging new technologies in the study of World War II Pacific and the Korean War.  
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