WAUKEGAN (CBS) — After spending almost 70 years submerged in Lake Michigan, salvage experts pulled an old World War II fighter plane out of the water on Friday.
The FM-2 “Wildcat” went into the lake off the end of an aircraft carrier in Waukegan Harbor during World War II, while on a training mission on Dec. 28, 1994. The pilot survived the crash, which was blamed on engine failure.
It sat in about 160 feet of water until Sunday, when salvage crews began towing it toward shore. Recovery specialist Taras Lysenko said the recovery lift was less likely to rip off the wings if done in a safe harbor instead of the open waters of Lake Michigan.
U.S. Army veteran Chuck Greenhill planned to help restore the fighter, as he’s done with other WWII era planes. The back of his hat says it all: Keep ’em Flying.
On Friday, his latest project was fished out of Lake Michigan.
It sat on the bottom of the lake for almost 70 years, until divers from A & T Recovery floated it up and towed it into the harbor.
Greenhill, of north suburban Mettawa, was looking forward to getting the damaged plane back into flying shape. Most of the tail section was gone, but its wings, cockpit and engine were still intact.
“It’s going to take a while to get this thing going, but it will. It’ll get to look like an airplane again,” he said.
Greenhill said the stick and rudder pedals were still working. The plane was his second restoration project reclaimed from the lake. He’s also worked on a Birdcage Corsair that was pulled out of the lake two years ago.
Why does he do it?
“It’s so important to have these airplanes available for the public to see, so people can appreciate what happened back in this era,” he said. “If this thing laid in the lake, it would just be completely forgotten. It would be junk.”
The plane was moved from deeper water to the harbor, so that it could be safely lifted out of the lake. Crews began towing the plane underwater on Sunday, and it arrived at the harbor on Tuesday, but they decided to wait until Friday to pull it out, to coincide with the 71st anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Greenhill also has the last air-worthy plane left from Pearl Harbor.
Lysenko described the Wildcat fighter as “a beer can with wings.”
Though not as maneuverable as the Japanese Zero, it was very durable, and extremely lethal with four wing-mounted .50 caliber machine guns. It also was often fitted with aircraft rockets for use against ships, surfaced submarines, or ground targets.
The most famous Wildcat was flown by Butch O’Hare, for whom O’Hare International Airport was named. O’Hare received the Medal of Honor for downing five Japanese bombers attacking the aircraft carrier Lexington in 1942.
Like the warplanes currently on display at Midway and O’Hare airports, which also were pulled from the bottom of the lake, the Wildcat salvaged on Friday will fly again, in a museum.
“After all these years, it’s gonna come back to life, this old bird,” Greenhill said.
Over the years, A & T Recovery has salvaged more than 30 WWII planes from the lake. More than 100 planes crashed into the lake
Lake Michigan treats planes well. At 160 feet deep where this Wildcat was found, it’s dark and cold with little oxygen.
Recovered planes often have some air in the tires, and even a trickle of charge in the battery.
The Naval Aviation Museum Foundation sponsored the recovery. The foundation wants the Wildcat to eventually go on display in Glenview.