World War II plane pulled from Lake Michigan

November 9, 2010 4:47:38 AM PST
A World War II fighter plane rose from its grave in the cold waters of Lake Michigan 67 years after it crashed during a training mission.

On June 12, 1943, the F4U-1 Corsair fighter crashed into the lake near Waukegan during practice landings and takeoffs from the USS Wolverine. The pilot, Carl Harold Johnson, survived the crash but was killed in the Pacific later that year while flying from the US aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. The plane- which was one of an estimated 200 World War II fighters lost in Lake Michigan- lost its tail upon impact and sank in about 240 feet of water.

Naval experts said many of the Glenview Naval Air Station aircraft used for training had mechanical problems and the makeshift carriers had short flight decks. "If you sneezed on approach, you were in the water," said Retired Navy Captain Ed Ellis, secretary of the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation.

"It's referred to as a birdcage because the canopy was a frame as opposed to a bubble canopy. The bubble canopy was an improvement that came after his aircraft to give pilots better visibility on landing," said Captain Mark Wegge, US Navy reservist.

The plane's tail was recovered earlier and the rest was moved near Waukegan Harbor for the recovery. The plane surfaced just after 10 a.m. Monday and was removed from the lake about an hour later.

"I just didn't want to see that airplane lost into history. I just wanted a part of that brought up so I did whatever it took to get it up here," said Chuck Greenhill, a 75-year-old Lake Zurich pilot who still owns and operates World War II aircraft, and bankrolling the recovery effort.

A spokesman for the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida, said the salvaging, cleaning and transporting of the aircraft to Florida costs between $260,000 and $300,000. Restoration prices are still being negotiated.

The Corsair was first located in 1995. Last month, crews began dragging the craft into shallow waters near Waukegan harbor. Several divers participated in Monday's recovery when a crane operator carefully hoisted the 8,000 pound plane out of the lake. Every few minutes they stopped to let the water drain out.

"Rigging the initial lifting equipment is hard and then the other stuff isn't hard-- just dangerous," said Taras Lyssenko, A and T Recovery.

Crews had to put the fighter back in the water when a sharp edge cut one of the crane's straps.

"It kind of, it kind of makes you pay attention," said Bruce Bittner, diver.

Dozens of onlookers watched the plane surface from the lakefront.

Last year, a World War II F6F3 Hellcat fighter plane and a SBD Dauntless dive bomber were pulled from the water near Waukegan Harbor.

"You think of operating in the oceans, but here they were operating right on Lake Michigan. These were converted paddle wheel ferries, I believe, and they were made flat tops and we trained thousands of sailors during the 1940s, including the first President Bush," said Captain John Malfitano, commanding officer, Great Lakes Naval Station.


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