By the mid 70’s the US military transported tons of war materials from Vietnam to Thailand, but as this conflict came to an end in 1975 Helicopters, Half Tracks, Jeeps, Trucks and Aircraft were handed over to the Royal Thai Army, Navy and Air Force. In this transfer there were dozens of Douglas C-47’s / Dakota’s, straight from the Vietnam frontline into the more peaceful Thai Kingdom.
In total 55 C-47’s flew another 15-20 years of service in the Thai Forces. The Dakota’s were finally phased out of operational life in the early /mid 90’s and since stored outdoors at Lopbhuri Air Force Base and U Tapao Navy base. Their functional life seemed at an end, but after 50 years of active flying and some 15 years of silent retirement, there was an unexpected grand finale for the war weary planes.
The Tsunami struck Thailand on Dec. 26th 2004 with immense force and devastated the Western coastline in the South of Thailand, the island of Phuket in particular was hit very hard by the giant waves.
The people, Reefs and Corals of all kinds and major Scuba diving locations were affected by the disaster that took such a high toll of casualties and brought destruction to the land.
Almost 4 years after that eventful day there is a marked recovery from the blow, but under the water there is still a lot of damage to the Marine Environment. The very active Thai Divers Association (TDA), in conjunction with the Phuket Council, developed a marvellous plan to build an artificial reef in the Phuket waters. They sought the cooperation of the Royal Thai Air Force (RTAF) who donated the derelict Dakota’s for a sinking operation of unparalleled style, in order to create a new Diver’s paradise.
Along with old Sikorsky Helicopters, old Military Trucks (all Vietnam Vet’s), a structure will be set up on the sea bottom, (starting with 4 Dakota’s), that promotes the growth of Marine Life and is intended to replace the underwater destruction that occurred after the Tsunami. In the process all the RTAF’s Dakota’s will be sunk, starting with 4 of them, that are sitting at a harbour site near Phuket town on concrete blocks, intended for the underwater anchoring of the derelicts.
While the sinking operation was intended to start in May 2008, an early start of the monsoon season delayed this until november 2008. It gave me the opportunity to fly in and negotiate with the TDA President and their energetic CEO, Mr Rainer Gottwald , the Phuket Council and the Royal Thai Air Force Commander, for the removal of the wingtips from the aircraft, doomed for a submarine burial as the final act of their eventful life.
Fortunately, at the last minute, we managed to convince the Thai authorities that the wingtip removal will open the outer side rib holes in the main wings giving access to the labyrinth of wing chambers inside so that the wing sinks better. Those holes of 10-12 cm diameter only allow the influx of smaller marine life into the wings, making a perfect breeding place which gives shelter to small fish and their eggs against larger predators and intruders.
With such controlled entry the creation of a rich and varied Marine biotope should develop faster yielding more attraction for divers and promoting tourism for the devastated island, that has not yet fully recovered from that hurricane in 2004.
As a Win Win deal for all parties our proposal was found to have some sound arguments. All involved agreed to accept the wingtip removal from the planes, and in exchange, we will contribute as sponsors to the substantial costs of the sinking operation.
But there is one other factor. The C-47’s were handed out to the Thai Forces in a US Military Aid Program (MAP) which effectively forbids re-export of any aircraft or its parts without the consent of the US Military.
We worked hard to convince the US authorities that the wingtips are of no more military value (all C-47’s were built during WW II and are truly “vintage” to almost “antique” by now), and could be saved as static display parts in order to keep up the memory of that All American Icon of Aviation History in museums and with collectors all over the world.
With my special thanks to Mr. Rainer Gottwald and Mr Ralf Erler from the TDA Tecnichal Committee for their help, hospitality and introduction to many officials involved in the operation.
Soon I will re-visit Madagascar and Colombia where we also found derelict and crashed Dakota’s in the jungle. The purchase and export of the parts and cockpits in both countries is a delicate affair that requires a lot of patience with lengthy dealings with the Military and Customs Authorities. We will keep you posted of the latest exploits