Sunday, January 01, 2006

Rift leaves hundreds of planes in world's bodies of water


The Virginian-Pilot
By Jack Dorsey
August 23, 2004

An SBD Dauntless rests 150 feet below the surface of Lake Michigan.
This front view shows the cockpit with its bomb sight and twin
.50-caliber machine guns.

Today, they have Oceana, Fentress and the decks of a dozen aircraft carriers.But 60 years ago, in the heat of World War II, young Navy pilots learning the art of carrier takeoffs and landings had it a little rougher.

With German submarines patrolling the East Coast and the Japanese threatening the West Coast, the Navy took its carrier-landing training inland to Lake Michigan. Flying off the shore of Chicago, nearly 18,000 pilots – including former President George H.W. Bush – honed their skills on “lake carriers.”

They practiced on two converted side-wheel paddle steamers – coal-fueled former excursion ships with their tops cut off. Much smaller than the Navy’s biggest carriers, the makeshift flat-tops were a considerable challenge for fledgling aviators.

Eight pilots died in the training; hundreds of others survived accidents that left an estimated 200 planes at the bottom of Lake Michigan. That graveyard of planes is a treasure trove of Naval aviation history: Grumman F-4F Wildcat fighters, Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers, F-4U1 Corsairs and F-6F3 Hellcats.

The aluminum carcasses at the bottom of Lake Michigan – and other wrecks across the world – are also at the heart of a clash between two Navy agencies with different ideas on how best to preserve the wrecks.

Officials with the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Fla., want to retrieve the planes and put them on display.

But archaeologists with the Naval Historical Center in Washington, which claims ownership of all Navy aircraft and ship wrecks, believe the treasures may be better left alone.

Proponents of retrieval say waiting could result in the eventual corrosion of the wrecks, especially those in salt water graves.

“The Navy Historical Center and its underwater archaeology people are the obstacle to the salvage of Navy aircraft, not only from Lake Michigan, but everywhere else in the world,” said Ed Ellis, the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation’s secretary and a retired Navy captain and lawyer. But Robert S. Neyland, head of the underwater archaeology branch of the Navy Historical Center, defends leaving the wrecks undisturbed.

“Those that are left are very good resources for the future,” he said. “That resource should be used in good stewardship. Think how much more important it will be to recover one in 100 years from now, or 150 years from now, once this generation has died.”

For now, the two sides are at a stalemate – no U.S. Navy planes have been raised since 1996.

The Navy used more than 100 carriers in World War II; today’s Navy has just 12 of the floating airfields.

During the war, the “real” carriers were needed for combat, mostly in the Pacific. So for training purposes, the Navy cobbled together the two lake carriers.

The excursion ships, renamed Wolverine and Sable, were fitted with 550-foot flight decks just 27 feet above the water. The real carriers had decks that were almost 900 feet long and 80 feet off the water.

Normally, planes have to take off from carriers headed into a stiff wind, often generated by a fast-moving carrier. But the lake carriers barely were able to make 20 knots, and when they couldn’t do that, training stopped until the wind increased.

The ships left almost daily from Navy Pier in downtown Chicago. The main complaint from the locals was that when they left the pier, soot from their smoke stacks soiled laundry drying on lines. So the ships were ordered to leave port before dawn, before the clothes were hung.

Operating from nearby Glenview Naval Air Station, the pilot trainees would visit the carriers only briefly. They needed just eight successful takeoffs and landings and often qualified in two or three days; today’s pilots need a minimum of 48 “touch-and-goes” to be qualified.

The Lake Michigan wrecks are just a fraction of what is out there: the Navy has identified about 12,000 World War II crash sites on land or in the water. Museums have retrieved some for restoration and display, including 31 from Lake Michigan before the Navy Historical Center put the clamps on raising planes.

Many of the planes raised from Lake Michigan were in near-pristine condition because of the cold, fresh water. Some had fuel in their tanks, propellers that spin, inflated tires and 12-volt batteries still able to accept a charge.

A few were even restored to air-worthy status. A Grumman F-4F3 Wildcat discovered in Lake Michigan in 1992 is the only one still flying out of 2,000 produced.

Another group also favors raising the wrecks: salvage companies that can recover the planes.

“The turf battle between the agencies is relatively new,” said Peter E. Hess, an admiralty lawyer from Wilmington, Del., and an avid wreck diver for 20 years. “But the battle between the private-sector salvor wishing to recover the wrecks and the bureaucrats wishing to stand guard over them has been going on since the advent of scuba diving.”

Taras C. Lyssenko of A&T Recovery in Chicago has retrieved three dozen aircraft from Lake Michigan, including the prized F-4F3 Wildcat that is back in the air. He has no love for the Navy Historical Center.

“NHC has been the most harmful agency to the preservation of naval history,” Lyssenko said. “They have stopped the recovery of airplanes which are being ripped apart by zebra mussels and salt water in the ocean.”

Some of Lyssenko’s discoveries are on display at museums in Long Island, N.Y.; aboard the carrier Yorktown, in Charleston, S.C.; aboard the carrier Lexington in Corpus Christie, Texas; in San Diego, Palm Springs, Calif., and Seattle; at O’Hare and Midway airports in Chicago; and at the Navy museum in Pensacola, Fla.

Robert Rasmussen, director of the Pensacola museum for the past 17 years, declines to criticize the NHC and says that the 30 aircraft the museum has recovered from Lake Michigan “have given us tremendous resources.”

Four of the museum’s planes were in combat before being returned to the United States and used for training on Lake Michigan. One was a veteran of the Battle of Midway.

“We are working on a project now to recover two from the lake,” Rasmussen said. “One is a F-4U1 Corsair and the other is a F-6F3 Hellcat. The Corsair is very rare. It was used by the Marine Corps during the greater part of the war in the Pacific.”

Rasmussen did say that “there is urgency to get them up.”

In some cases, the Lake Michigan planes are the only examples left in the world of some models . “Before we got the combat veterans out of Lake Michigan, we had zero combat veterans of World War II,” Rasmussen said.

Lyssenko, a former Army Ranger who has operated his salvage business out of Lake Michigan since the early 1980s, says he has mapped the location of at least 80 aircraft wrecks, but won’t reveal the locations to the Navy without a fee.

In June, Navy Historical Center archaeologists attempted to locate the lake wrecks. A team of seven Navy divers from Fort Story in Virginia Beach – Explosive Ordnance Disposal Mobile Unit 10 – towed two of their boats to Lake Michigan to search for the wrecks. But the poor weather inhibited the search , and the divers were only able to verify two sites.

Hess, the admiralty lawyer, successfully has battled state and federal governments to open shipwrecks, such as the Monitor, to the diving public. He maintains that the public has a right to the underwater aviation wrecks.

“You don’t protect the site by leaving it underwater,” he said. “You protect it by recovering it and restoring it.”

He noted that Neyland headed the recovery efforts of the confederate submarine H.L. Hunley, which sank in 1864 off South Carolina’s coast and was raised in 2000.

“Why raise a submarine and not an airplane?” he said.

Neyland, who joined NHC in 1994 , says he is concerned that some planes are further damaged in the process of being raised, and that often there is no clear plan to preserve their originality.

“If somebody has a good use for the aircraft and can learn something from them, and if they have a good plan for the display, I don’t think we have any real objection,” Neyland said. “I don’t know where Pensacola plans to display the two aircraft from Lake Michigan.”

Neyland also said that some planes have been raised, then used by museums as currency, a transaction authorized by the Secretary of the Navy.

“In the past we did have some concern here about aircraft being traded out of the Navy to pay for other services by the museum and the foundation,” he said. “We questioned whether that was being a good use of the aircraft as a resource.”

Through the Pensacola museum, Lyssenko said he had permits to retrieve two planes, but that those permits expired in 2001 and have not been renewed by the Navy Historical Center.

Lyssenko said the center placed so many additional demands on the projects, including increasingly detailed archaeological reports, that it increased the recovery cost by $80,000 per plane. That increase is passed on to the foundation, or museum, and eventually the Navy, which funds both organizations .

Generally, the cost of salvage, depending on water depth, has been between $150,000 and $170,000 a plane, according to Ellis, secretary of the Pensacola museum.

Ellis said that the Navy Historical Center also has added red tape to the salvage process.

“They have taken the position that every aircraft crash site must have an archaeological survey and a fully documented record of the salvage,” he said.


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