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Should I disturb the wreckage of an airplane?

Hypothetically, if you are an airplane operator that has managed to survive the crash of your small plane on a New York runway, or are associated with the crashed plane in some fashion, you may wonder if you are permitted to disturb the plane wreckage in any fashion. The National Transportation Safety Board lays out some simple guidelines for operators to follow in case of an airplane accident.

When it comes to the material components of the craft, the NTSB specifies that nothing is to be removed or modified from the wreckage. This includes the actual body of the plane, such as the wings, engine parts, the cockpit and landing gear. Documents stored in the craft must also remain with the plane. Additionally, operators should not disturb the plane's flight recorder or modify it in any way. All of these items and components are to be preserved until the NTSB decides to assume custody of them.

An important exception remains when it comes to preserving human life. If passengers and crew are still inside the plane and cannot move under their own power or are trapped in the craft, the plane can be further disturbed or even demolished to extract trapped persons. Further displacement of the craft can occur if the plane constitutes a safety hazard to the public. Also, if the plane is in a state of deterioration or at risk of destruction, moving the plane is permitted to preserve it. 

According to federal law, the NTSB might or might not take custody of the wrecked plane, so the craft should be preserved as much as possible until then, so long as human lives are not at risk. Decisions made about releasing the wreckage back to owner custody will be made at the investigator-in-charge's discretion.

This information is provided for educational reasons, and should not be interpreted as legal advice.

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