Aviation archaeology

Excavation of crashed military aircraft within the United Kingdom.

All military aircraft crash sites in the United Kingdom, its territorial waters, or British aircraft in international waters, are controlled sites under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986. It is an offence under this act to tamper with, damage, move or unearth any items at such sites, unless the Ministry of Defence (MOD) has issued a licence authorising such activity.

As such, anyone wishing to recover a military aircraft, or excavate a military aircraft crash site in the UK is required to obtain a licence from the Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre (JCCC), part of the Defence Business Services (DBS).

Licence application procedure

Before a licence can be issued, applicants are required to research and supply to the JCCC all relevant information on the aircraft they wish to recover including: location of crash site and the fate of the crew.

Further guidance on obtaining a licence and copies of the application forms are contained in the booklet ‘Crashed military aircraft of historical interest, notes for guidance of recovery groups’ Licence Notes for Guidance (PDF, 443KB, 13 pages) or supplied on request by the JCCC.

On receipt of a licence application, the JCCC checks the information supplied against official records held in the MOD archives, Air Historical Branch, Commonwealth War Graves Commission and where appropriate with the German or American authorities. These enquiries may take several months to complete; as such applicants should apply for a licence at least 3 month before they intend to commence work.

Main points

A licence is required to excavate any military aircraft crash site in the United Kingdom, irrespective of whether the aircraft was in the service of the British, American, German or other nation’s armed forces.

A licence will not be issued if human remains are likely to be found at the site.

A licence cannot be issued if significant amounts of unexploded ordnance (bombs) are believed to be present at the site.

All applications for a licence require the written support of the landowner to the excavation taking place.

Additional requirements may have to be met, before a licence is issued to excavate a crash site in a national park or designated Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

The MOD reserves the right to deploy its representatives to witness any excavations approved under the Protection of Military Remains Act.

Outside the United Kingdom, international or British territorial waters, the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 does not apply. Excavations of crash sites of British aircraft are be subject to the laws of the country concerned. However, MOD policy is to discourage disturbance of such sites unless necessary in respect of host government approved activities, like land reclamation or construction.

Local government requirements

Local councils may impose additional requirements or limitations in respect of archaeological activity within their area of jurisdiction, particularly if the crash site is in an area where other historical artifacts may be disturbed. Applicants for a licence under the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986 should therefore check with the council or local sites and monuments records officer in advance, or at the same time, as applying for a licence from the MOD.

Ownership of recovered items

Notwithstanding the issuing of a licence, all items recovered remain the property of the Crown. This includes items recovered from crashed British aircraft outside the UK (for which a licence is not required). Excavations are licensed on the understanding that MOD may require the licensee to surrender all items recovered to the department without compensation.

On expiry of the licence, or completion of the excavation if earlier, licensees are required to file a report to the JCCC, listing all items found and if appropriate request transfer of ownership. Transfer of ownership is not guaranteed, but in practice ownership of most items recovered, including parts of the aircraft may be transferred to the licensee. However, the following items have to be surrendered to the MOD:

  • all personal items belonging to the crew (which will be returned to the next of kin or crewmember if still alive)
  • all official documents / records
  • items assessed as being of historical interest (The MOD seeks the views of the Royal Air Force Museum on the historical value of items recovered)

Should MOD learn that not all items recovered have been declared to the JCCC, or that items have been recovered or disposed of contrary to the terms of the Protection of Military Remains Act 1986, the licensee or individual concerned will be liable to prosecution

If you have any enquiries on the licensing of military aircraft excavations within the United Kingdom, not answered by the advice above, please contact a member of JCCC Commemorations and Licensing Team.

Published 26 June 2013
Last updated 26 July 2018 + show all updates
  1. Updated the Licence notes for guidance pdf.

  2. Updated to reflect the organisational changes within Ministry of Defence.

  3. First published.