F4F Wildcat Warbirds in Review

By Frederick A. Johnsen

A pristine Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat World War II fighter flew from Texas to be at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2021 where it was the toast of a Warbirds in Review session Monday afternoon. Little did most visitors realize this fighter and another like it were rescued from Lake Michigan and housed in an aging brick warehouse on the south side of Chicago in the early 1990s where people said the planes “smelled like an old aquarium” and still fetched unrestored prices in the vicinity of a quarter-million dollars.

F4F Wildcat at Warbirds in Review
Photo Credit: Frederick A. Johnsen

The recoveries were the brainchild of Taras Lyssenko who, as part of A and T Recovery, mapped the locations of dozens of World War II U.S. Navy aircraft that ditched in the cold waters of Lake Michigan during the rigors of wartime training. Taras told the AirVenture attendees at the review session that it can take about a year to achieve all of the various governmental permissions and environmental reviews before a rare artifact like the Wildcat can be raised from the depths of Lake Michigan.

The Wildcat at Oshkosh this year was discovered facing nose down in 210 feet of water, Taras said. That depth is fraught with danger for divers, so the recovery team spent several months trying to use a camera-equipped remote device to open Dzus fasteners on a panel covering lifting lugs on the fighter. With success eluding them, the decision was made to dive carefully on the aircraft, mindful that the water temperature was 38 degrees, and that nitrogen narcosis in the depths could make an unwary diver sleepily unaware of his peril.

In November 1991, two F4F Wildcats emerged from the waves. Their paint was amazingly intact, and Grumman’s legendary corrosion-proofing treatment had done its job well. Oxygen bottles still held oxygen with the pilots’ masks attached. Gasoline remained in the tanks, and incidentals like a pencil remained inside. In one of the Wildcats, an instrument panel glare shield made of leather was still pliable and usable. Plexiglas in the windscreen was clear and intact.

Respected warbird seller Mark Clark was asked to offer the two Wildcats for sale. During the Wildcat panel session, Mark recalled how he contacted three likely customers to view the two Wildcats with individual appointments. More potential buyers than available Wildcats. One gets the feeling Mark Clark knows his business.

Deals were struck, and the two ’Cats found new homes. Dave Kensler, on the Warbirds in Review panel, bought the sister ship to the Wildcat at Oshkosh. He found the inside of the fuselage only needed cleaning, not repainting. With new electrolyte solution added for a test, the vintage fighter’s battery could take a charge. The wings needed more rebuilding, Dave said, because they were made by a contractor who evidently lacked Grumman’s penchant for corrosion-proofing aluminum structures.

Both of these F4F-3s have made flying appearances at AirVenture since the 1990s. Rod Lewis subsequently bought one of the Great Lakes Wildcats, and he offered to get it ready to display this year at Oshkosh. Pilot Conrad Huffstutler, whose own restoration of a later FM-2 Wildcat was a sensation at AirVenture in 2013, flew the Lewis Air Legends F4F-3 from Texas to Oshkosh for the event. Conrad was enthusiastic about the Wildcat’s place in history, as a viable warplane in the dark early months of World War II when it was animated by courageous pilots like Butch O’Hare, namesake of O’Hare International Airport in Chicago.

The F4F Wildcat at Warbirds in Review at AirVenture 2021

The audience voiced appreciation to the panel members who recovered and restored the amazingly revived Wildcat parked on the Warbirds ramp. At the end of the session, the exuberant Taras Lyssenko invited everyone to stand with the panel members for a group photo; a mutual admiration society.

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