A rapidly deteriorating warplane resting 90 feet below the surface of Lake Michigan could soon have a new home at a midwestern aviation history museum.
The SBD Dauntless dive bomber, featured in a recent NBC 5 Investigation, crashed into the lake in 1943 while a US Navy pilot was attempting to land aboard the U. S. S. Wolverine. The pilot suffered a possible skull fracture, but later recovered and served aboard the U. S. S. Yorktown before becoming a physician after the war.
Several dozen planes that crashed into Lake Michigan during pilot training for World War 2 have been recovered and put on display in museums across the country. There are an estimated 70 aircraft that remain in the lake.
Troy Thrash, the CEO and president of the AirZoo in Portage, Michigan, has expressed interest in recovering and displaying the Dauntless. Thrash said his plan involves exhibiting the plane without completely restoring it.
“We want to create an entire exhibit around this idea of science saving history,” Thrash said. “So talk about what it takes to find these aircraft on the bottom of Lake Michigan and the technology used, the side scan sonar, and what it takes to bring them up and what that marine environment really is for them and how it’s deteriorating and destroying these aircraft and really just the importance of the history of these aircraft.”
But time is not on the museum’s side. Quagga mussels, which are invasive to Lake Michigan, are damaging the aircraft’s metal frame.
“We’ve got maybe four or five years left until the structural integrity of these aircraft is basically there’s no way to even bring them up,” Thrash said.
The US Naval History and Heritage Command owns the WW2 aircraft resting in Lake Michigan and the aircraft that are currently on display. According to the NHHC director, retired Admiral Sam Cox, any plan to recover an aircraft would need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. It would also need to be fully funded and would require substantial inter-agency government work to gain all necessary approvals.
“I am intrigued by the AirZoo’s idea,” Cox said. “As a general rule, the Navy prefers that Navy wrecks remain undisturbed. However, the Lake Michigan aircraft represent a special case due to the specific aircraft types and the nature of the environment that gives them great potential educational value to the American public.”
The AirZoo is currently restoring two aircraft recovered from Lake Michigan. Thrash said 75 volunteers who work on the planes are the “lifeblood” of the restoration function.
Taras Lyssenko of A & T Recovery said at one time his crew recovered the aircraft for the sole purpose of telling their historic stories. But he said now the aircraft tell a great amount of science and technology.
“We are learning a lot about Great Lakes' biology and an ever changing ecosystem with the invasive exotic invaders attaching to the aircraft,” Lyssenko said. “Additionally, we are gaining a greater understanding of how living organisms have accelerated corrosion and and other forms of deterioration, which is advancing the study of the material sciences.”
You can watch NBC 5 Investigates’ journey to the Dauntless in Lake Michigan on NBC 5 Chicago's YouTube page.