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For a pen-and-paper RPG scenario, I want the player characters to find and salvage undeveloped film from a crashed early-cold-war or late-WWII photo recon aircraft. Where in the world is it most plausible that the film would survive until the present day?

  • As per this news story from the BBC, undeveloped film can survive 70 years under good storage conditions. Here I'm assuming 60 to 80 years in the wreckage of an aircraft. It is not necessary that all photos on the film survive.
  • Assume that the crash landing was close to a best case scenario from a film survival viewpoint, almost a belly landing, if that helps.
  • It would be good if the crash site was "adventure friendly" terrain. With that I mean desert, jungle, arctic, high mountains, or the like. Of course a salvage operation on a golf course with lots of muggles oblivious bystanders has adventure potential, too, so that is not a hard restriction on the answers.
  • I'm not aware if there were any fundamental technical developments in the timeframe that would alter the film survival. Wet film photo recon was in use until fairly recently and the timeframe might be adjusted if that is necessary to provide a positive answer.
  • The story has science-fictional elements, but they don't affect the loss and subsequent recovery of the film. I tagged my question and would not be unhappy if answers meet the standard, e.g. by giving documented real-world examples.

Just to clarify: I would prefer a wilderness expedition, not one into dusty, not-yet-declassified archives protected by guards and red tape. That would also be an adventure, but a completely different one. So the film would be undeveloped unless it was developed in flight (some big recon aircraft could do that).


Next clarification: I would like the characters to be the first "discoverers" of the wreck, following a mix of old flight plans and modern satellite imagery. Say it had a long preplanned course, which it left somewhere, and then navigated by dead reckoning to find a friendly airfield somewhere else, all long before GPS and inertial navigation. So it was lost until someone took hyperspectral satellite pictures and started to hunt for the outline of the plane. That's not really part of the question because the different theories and search area reasoning for MH370 are still living memory.

I have a plan what's on the film, somewhat to the side of the historical mission objective. But that isn't relevant for the question.

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    $\begingroup$ As a side issue you might want to look at the photographs of the Shackleton expedition. They didn't leave film behind, but otherwise fits your scenario. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 24, 2021 at 18:47
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    $\begingroup$ It very strongly depends on the film. In general, consumer grade black and white film which was not subjected to high temperatures may still yield usable photos after fifty years of neglect. Professional grade film, not so much. (Consumer grade film was and is designed to show no degradation after one or two years -- it was common for consumers to load the film at Chrismas, snap a few pictures, then snap a few more in summer on vacation, and develop it before next Christmas.) Recovering photos from old undeveloped film is quite a popular hobby; a few minutes search will yield many examples. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 0:03
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    $\begingroup$ Here is an example of a photo recovered in 2014 from a film exposed in the early 1970s. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 0:06
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    $\begingroup$ I think that the biggest question you'd have to answer is why the owners of the aircraft didn't launch an expedition to recover the photos immediately after the crash. $\endgroup$
    – nick012000
    Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 3:27
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP has the easiest correct answer — black and white film can last a really long time. I have personally recovered images from film I found in a Kodak Junior Six-Sixteen that my father-in-law had been using as a bookend. The camera was made between 1937 and 1940. The images on the film looked to be from the mid-1960s. It had received no special protection at all but the images were recognizable. Had it been stored in a dark, cold place, they might have been perfect. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 4:39

8 Answers 8

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Let's give the word to the experts:

Film manufacturers print the expiration date on the roll, and when stored correctly, you can get great photos years or even decades beyond their printed expiration date.

  • Low temperatures slow down film degradation.
  • High temperatures speed up film degradation.
  • Freezing stops the film degradation.
  • Humidity speed up film degradation.
  • Dry storage minimizes film degradation

Excerpt from Kodak’s website about Storage and Handling of Unprocessed Film:

Refrigerating camera films reduces the photographic effects of long-term storage, but refrigeration cannot reduce the effects of ambient gamma radiation. Naturally occurring gamma radiation increases the D-min and toe densities and also increases grain. Higher speed films are affected more by gamma radiation than lower speed films. A camera film with an EI (Exposure Index) of 800 has a much greater change than an EI 200 film. Exposed and unprocessed film that has been properly refrigerated retains the speed and contrast of the exposure conditions, but the overall D-min, toe and grain will continue to increase.

It seems that the best place would be a freezing cold and dry place, away from gamma radiation.

I guess Antarctica fits the bill pretty nicely: it's a dry desert, and the large amount of ice surrounding anything left there would act as a natural barrier against gamma radiation.

And I guess it's also an adventurous place, ask Scott for references.

By the way, I think I have read that some photos of polar expedition were found and developed a century after the expedition. (thanks to Henk Groot for referencing the right source)

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    $\begingroup$ Do you have more information on protection from gamma ray offer by layer of ice ? From memory gamma rays are low energetic really hard to stop radiations. $\endgroup$
    – RomainL.
    Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 10:28
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    $\begingroup$ I think you might be referring to the photos from Ernest Shackleton's 1914-1917 Ross Sea Party. See also this CNN article from 2013: Century-old photo negatives found in Antarctic explorer's hut (edition.cnn.com/2013/12/28/world/antarctic-historic-photos/…). $\endgroup$
    – Henk Groot
    Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 10:30
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    $\begingroup$ @RomainL. gamma rays a very high energy radiation. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 16:02
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    $\begingroup$ @RomainL., nuclear power plants use water pools to isolate irradiated materials and spent fuel. See what-if.xkcd.com/29 $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 16:28
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    $\begingroup$ @OscarBravo I'm sure I read about a camera being found on Everest, with film inside that someone was able to recover images from -- but it might not have been Mallory's. It wasn't found with a body, as I recall, it was just lying on a rock surface near where snow had melted back. Can't find a reference, though, so maybe it was about someone hoping to find that camera. $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Commented Jan 26, 2021 at 15:24
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Greenland:

I was thinking Greenland, due to the WW2/Cold war angle, and there were whole military bases that were built there and crushed by moving ice. A recon plane could have flown to an abandoned base in order to ditch on a runway, but crashed (and no one was there anymore to save them). Or your team could explore the ruins of an abandoned military base where the film got developed and/or stored in a sealed vault, then abandoned/forgotten as a combo of L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica♦ and this and Willk's answer (I upvoted both). There were abandoned bases from both WW2 and the cold war left here, but ultimately the climate was too harsh for permanent bases. They are being crushed by ice and snow, but the ruins are still there and make a great place to explore.

Need scifi elements? Folks like MUFON and other fringe groups report alien spacecraft frozen in the Greenland ice, too. The Vikings built and abandoned villages in Greenland in case you need fantasy elements as well. So have fun exploring the lands and seas of Greenland.

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  • $\begingroup$ I want a scenario which makes the player characters first to develop the film. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Commented Jan 24, 2021 at 19:31
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    $\begingroup$ There is actually a group of aircraft called "The Lost Squadron" that is buried hundreds of metres below the ice. Missions in the 1990s and the currently ongoing are trying to recover these...they may be the perfect candidate. livescience.com/… $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 20:36
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    $\begingroup$ @JacksonDunn, the Lost Squadron was a WWII ferry flight of fighters and bombers from North America to Europe. They wouldn't have had photo-recon equipment aboard, and possibly no film at all. $\endgroup$
    – Mark
    Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 23:39
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    $\begingroup$ @mark That's what they want you to think. $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 26, 2021 at 0:03
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    $\begingroup$ @Mark -- the Blue Spruce routes they were using to ferry planes across the Atlantic at that time were probably used by photorecon planes as well $\endgroup$
    – Shalvenay
    Commented Jan 26, 2021 at 0:59
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High Mountaintop.

Your photo reconnaissance plane intended to fly 100ft over the mountaintop, instead if flew 100ft under the mountaintop. Typical clouds-stuffed-with-rocks scenario.

The plane impacted into deep snow, making the impact "gentle" enough for the camera's film package to survive intact and sealed.

The location is well above the snowline, the wreckage will be exposed to winds and ice and snow but never to temperatures above freezing, thus preventing repeated frost/thaw cycles.

You may need to provide a fortuitous avalanche to uncover the snow/ice covering the wreckage, just before discovery.

With sustained almost zero humidity, and sustained freeze, and intact in packaging from the first impact, your film should be quite recoverable. It may help that 99% of the time it was covered by a deep snow&ice layer, preventing light and greatly reducing cosmic ray impact from fading the film. (high altitude radiation would otherwise have been a problem)

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    $\begingroup$ I like the epic hook ("epic" as in "series of adventures") starting from the Controlled Flight Into Terrain. Why did the flight crew crash into the mountain? Developing and examining the film reveals... NEXT WEEK'S ADVENTURE! $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 14:50
  • $\begingroup$ Malabar Princess: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Air_India_Flight_245 they are still discovering pieces of it as the glacier moves on. $\endgroup$
    – dargaud
    Commented Jan 26, 2021 at 9:58
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Someone was there first

Thinking thru the role playing aspect: your players find undeveloped film in the plane. Then they have to find someplace to develop it and then look at the images to figure out what is next.

Finding a place to develop old film in some remote area is not that fun. Also, I somehow know one of your players will be that guy who will argue that the film cannot possibly still be good, and might have a little knowledge on that front that he is eager to share and your game play gets sidetracked.

Your players find the plane. The interior is empty, the materials salvaged. Back in town they ask and are pointed to a bar where many of the seats are seats from the plane, seat belts still attached. The bartender assures the players that the crew of the plane were buried respectfully and can show them the graves if things go that way. As regards any photos or other items the proprietor refers the players to his uncle who is a weird little dude who lives in a loft over a bordello. He developed the photos and has them in an album. He has a lot of other photos too, and maybe other hobbies.

Visiting third world bars and strange old uncles seems like better role playing to me.

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  • $\begingroup$ That might reveal too much, I'd rather stay with making the initial scenario workable. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Commented Jan 24, 2021 at 19:29
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    $\begingroup$ Haven't you seen MacGyver? You can develop negatives with coffee and washing soda (or lye made from the ashes of the campfire); acidic fruit juice can act as stop bath (which Mac missed, hence why the film turned black as they looked at it), but there's no good way to fix in the wilderness (sea water will do it, more or less, but takes soaking for days). $\endgroup$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 12:19
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The Gobi Desert

The Gobi Desert is very dry, being in the rain shadow of Tibet. It is also very cold for much of the year (below -20°C in winter), although it can become comfortably warm during summer. As L.Dutch says, the low humidity and temperature give fairly good conditions for film to survive.

It would be good if the crash site was "adventure friendly" terrain.

Much of the Gobi Desert is mountainous bare rock, with some sandy areas and sparse vegetation. Very adventurous! Unlike most other deserts though, the environment is not so harsh that it's hard for people to survive there, given proper supplies. The problem simply is a lack of available water. So unlike Antarctica or the Sahara, it's perfectly possible for your adventurers to rock up with regular cold-weather gear and without needing super-specialised skills to survive there.

You don't explicitly say this in your question, but you do have a clear requirement that no-one has discovered the crashed plane before. (Or at least that it hasn't been reported to anyone.) A major problem with Antarctica as proposed by L.Dutch is that it's fairly actively surveyed by research groups. It also isn't particularly on the way from somewhere to somewhere else, and there have been few enough planes lost for it to be fairly unlikely that there's anything new to discover.

The Gobi Desert on the other hand has not had many people interested in it before, apart from nomadic animal herders and fossil hunters. Mineral extraction has now become more of a focus recently though, giving a viable reason for the area to have been surveyed for the first time and something new to be found. Some herders still live relatively traditional lifestyles in the desert, giving local colour and perhaps a source of oral history about the crash. Given its size and location, planes naturally have to cross it for some routes, making it entirely possible that a plane could have come down there.

To add to the chances of this having gone unreported, this would most likely have been a Chinese or Russian aircraft. During WWII the Chinese were fighting for survival against the Japanese, and one lost aircraft may well not have been particularly remarked upon. The Russians similarly had other priorities: China was not a threat; and the Kuril Islands were not as important as Leningrad and Moscow (and besides, the Americans were already dealing with the Japanese in the Pacific). With the Cold War immediately after WWII, Western governments would not have had any knowledge of lost Chinese or Russian aircraft. With the civil war, the Chinese themselves may even have lost those records, or other reasons (the families of the crew, perhaps) may have made it unacceptable for the records to be kept, and Stalin had similar tendencies to erase "unpopular" people from the records.

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  • $\begingroup$ There was a big military operation by the Soviets at the end of WWII whose right wing went through part of the Gobi desert. Also China and the USSR were quite unfriendly after the mid-1950s and I would expect the border was patrolled regularly. Certainly more than Antarctica. Plus you actually have people living there. $\endgroup$
    – Jan
    Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 15:22
  • $\begingroup$ Summer temperatures in the Gobi are actually not that low. 30 to 35°C is perfectly normal. Necessary equipment is not so different from other deserts: 4WD cars and enough water. $\endgroup$
    – Jan
    Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 15:24
  • $\begingroup$ Northern Mongolia might actually be a bit better because it is a bit colder (with Permafrost soil) and there are lots of woods were a crashed plane might stay undetected longer. $\endgroup$
    – Jan
    Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 15:27
  • $\begingroup$ Mongolia actually already has a quite interesting aircraft mystery, the Lin Biao incident (en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lin_Biao). $\endgroup$
    – Jan
    Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 15:36
  • $\begingroup$ What is the temperature range for photographic film? That needs to be addressed in your answer. $\endgroup$
    – RonJohn
    Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 16:01
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I know this is not quite wilderness discovered by hyperspectral satellite, but I had an idea after reading "Of course a salvage operation on a golf course with lots of muggles oblivious bystanders has adventure potential, too, so that is not a hard restriction on the answers." and wanted to see where it would go.


"Who do I think I am?" All you need to know is that we are a legitimate government organization tasked by the crown/congress/president/ministry of magic with protecting the realm against outside context problems. Here I have an ID glimmering with holographic print to prove it. Now, please hold further questions until after the briefing. The issue at hand is highly complicated but we're not paying you for intelligence so I will be brief.

In 1950 an asset was dispatched to Brazil to investigate an anomaly. The asset was damaged during recon and barely limped within our borders. We've tracked the asset to a crashsite in Frozen Utopia park, yes the largest artificial habitat replicating Antarctica in the world. As I already mentioned please hold your questions until I finish briefing. Fortunately at the time of crash the park was still under construction and the crew managed keep most of the plane intact. Unfortunately our retrieval team arrived to find site cordoned by a three letter agency in charge of the inside context problems. We're supposed to be on the same side, but bastards wouldn't let us access the crash site and they even detained the surviving crew. Enough with the questions and no you don't need to know the name of that blasted agency.

That should never had been a problem, but for security reasons the plane was unregistered, so they technically had jurisdiction and prevented us from investigating the asset. Thankfully the evidence collected is solely in our jurisdiction, so we've managed to block them from messing with the crash site. Bastards were not satisfied with interrogating the crew and inserted agents to Frozen Utopia staff to keep 24/7 watch over the crash site cordon. Thankfully we were quick enough to do the same thing to keep their grubby paws from retrieving the evidence.

We've been in jurisdiction limbo ever since. Fortunately both of our agencies produced a gag order for the park's leadership to stay quite and treat the crash site as an exhibit. My science staff tells me the conditions of the pavilion are near ideal for preserving the film canisters, so I am sure the evidence is still good.

What does that have to do with you? First of all, I asked you to stop asking questions. And second of all to claim jurisdiction the bastards must have an active case open. In 2 hours the case will be closed due to inactivity. They will re-open it of course, the bastards always do, however due to a holiday that won't happen for 14 hours. This gives us 12 hours to set things right. Crafty bastards have anticipated this and got a temporary injunction preventing citizens employed by us from interfering with the asset. However, you my friends are not citizens and you will be exorbitantly compensated for a trivial retrieval mission.

Now, operational logistics is trivial. When I walk out of the room the door to the wardrobe room will open. What did I say about questions, and yes it is the room that says wardrobe on it. That is the room our watchers stationed in the pavilion use. Inside you will find anything you might possibly want to conduct a retrieval mission in a hostile territory. Pardon me for the slip of the tongue, I meant hospitable, my speech coach is always on my case about confusing the two. Now, after you get the film canisters return to the wardrobe room and deposit them into the designated briefcases. We've had those ready since the beginning of the incident and it'll be great to finally close that loop.

There should be absolutely no problems, but we can't rule out the bastard agency from trying something underhanded. Oh, there are also some rumors that Russia, China, Israel, India, and Canada also expressed interest in the asset due to a similar event captured by satellites last week, but I am sure those are false. Heck, can you believe intelligence is reporting Canada stirring trouble? Honestly, SIGINT is a giant pile of rubbish.

The payment has already been deposited into your accounts. I am sure that won't be an issue, but there are two final legalities. First is the important one - we've obviously never met. And for the second one if you attempt to leave the area before completing the mission standby sniper teams have been authorized to maintain operational security.

Best of luck, phoenix out. You can barely make out agent muttering "god dammit, I said my code name again..." as he walks out of an unmarked door.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site Cloud Refraction. Answers like this, story-based, used to be quite fashionable on the site. Don't be too discouraged by the down-vote, there are still those who appreciate the vignette. Enjoy the site. (From review). $\endgroup$ Commented Jan 26, 2021 at 3:45
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    $\begingroup$ Thanks for the answer, but I have a plan who lost the plane, what it photographed, and who searches and how. My question was only about how realistic the survival of the film would be.This site tries to narrow each question down to a single, clearly answerable issue. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Commented Jan 26, 2021 at 5:18
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In addition to the other answers, parts of the Himalayas and Svalbard could also fit into this type of scenario. With the Himalayas, China, India and Britain could be included in the story and despite being Norwegian territory, Svalbard has a former Soviet Union, now Russian presence in Barentsburg (Pyramiden and Grumant).

For other places of interest areas check for locations above the permanent snow line.

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If it were me I'd be less concerned about where the plane was found but how much care was put into preserving the film in the crashed plane.

Was the film used of high quality? There's a lot of old film that has disintegrated because it was made of unstable chemicals, and they turned to goo or spontaneously combusted even when under the best care.

What kind of plane was it? A an airplane made of wood and steel components that crashes will rot and rust away, leaving anything inside exposed to the elements. An airplane made of aluminum and titanium will survive far longer, and take less damage in a crash, therefore protecting the film inside better.

Heat, cold, dryness, and humidity can all degrade materials. What degrades materials faster is the shifting between extremes. Look at the wooden posts at a pier. The most wear is the place where rising and lowering of the tide gets the wood wet and exposes it to the air. What stays (mostly) dry above the water, and what stays wet under the water, is not worn as near as quickly as what is in the middle.

The film most likely to be preserved will be the film that is kept from temperature and humidity variation. Think of film that would have been exposed, removed from the camera, then placed in storage canisters. A simple galvanized steel can or black plastic bottle (whichever is appropriate for the time period) will keep out wind, water, bugs, and even quite a bit of radiation from the sun, cosmic sources, and nuclear weapons testing.

Did anyone survive the crash to take actions, intentionally or not, that would preserve the film longer? Think of how crew of a crashed recon plane might act after a crash. They will want to tend to the wounded. They will seek out a means for rescue. While waiting rescue they will want to pack up the sensitive information that they can carry, such as the film, and destroy anything that they cannot, which will be the communication codes in their radios and maybe the camera. The capability of the camera could be a state secret and might be intentionally destroyed. The crew will be faced with a dilemma, they want to preserve the film for their superiors but also don't want it to fall into enemy hands.

What they could do is collect the film canisters and put them in a toolbox or something. They can tape it up tight with duck tape to keep out water and bugs. Maybe they even rig up a means to weld it shut before taping it up just for good measure. Then they bury it where they can retrieve it later if found by allies. If discovered by opposition forces then they can claim the film was burned. How the film stays buried can vary. They are discovered alive but no body cares about the film. They perish from being lost for so long. They are discovered by the enemy and lots of different paths can follow from there.

I'll review my two scenarios... First, assume a sturdy plane that crashes with the crew killed instantly, or at least before they can be bothered to do anything about the film. The plane is intact enough to keep out the elements enough to minimize decay of what is inside, the film is quality stuff and the automated photographic equipment puts the film in relatively sturdy film canisters and due to being undisturbed remains preserved until our heroes pick it up. Second, assume at least some of the crew survives, they have sufficient time, skill, and resources on hand to take measures to preserve the film and prevent capture or destruction by opposing forces. For any of a dozen possible reasons the film remains undisturbed until our heroes arrive.

In either scenario the probability of film surviving most any place on Earth for decades is quite high. Especially in the second scenario.

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  • $\begingroup$ steel and wood in cold dry climates can last a long time. which are hte best conditions to preserve the film. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Jan 27, 2021 at 16:55
  • $\begingroup$ The idea was a military photo recon plane. In the little ones (like the F-5 or PR Spitfire), the film can only be accessed on the ground. I guess in the big ones (RB-36 and the like) the crew might be able to do something, either after taking the pictures or in the moments before the crash. $\endgroup$
    – o.m.
    Commented Jan 28, 2021 at 5:46

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