Restoring a Warbird from Lake Michigan

January 20, 1944, would be the last day above the surface of Lake Michigan for one U.S. Navy dive bomber. It would take 50 years for it to see the light of day again. Then the aircraft would be used for parts to support other aircraft restorations. Now, SBD-5 Dauntless BuNo 36175 is about to have its time to shine and, most importantly, it will fly again. 

During World War II, the U.S. Navy operated two steam-powered paddlewheel ships. Known as the Sable and Wolverine, these two ships were used to train naval aviators how to land on an aircraft carrier. They were converted from passenger ships for this since the frontline aircraft carriers were too precious to spare from the fight. Aspiring naval aviators trained on the waters of Lake Michigan.

On the fateful date in January of ’44, pilot Lt. Charles L. Ford III was flying the Douglas-built SBD 36175. The aircraft at this point was a fairly new airplane, having been completed in October of 1943.

“From what we have uncovered so far, with the help of the Navy, is that Ford was attempting a landing on the Wolverine at too low of a speed,” said Military Aviation Museum Director Keegan Chetwynd. “The LSO or Landing Signal Officer gave him a wave off due to a fouled deck. Ford attempted the go-around and banked the aircraft steeply. It impacted the water in a direct nose-down attitude. You can still see the toll the impact had on parts of the aircraft.”

The impact was strong enough to shear the engine off at its mounts. The aircraft bobbed for a few moments before sinking. Luckily, Ford was able to get out before it sank. 

In the 1990s, the U.S. Navy allowed A&T Recovery, led by Taras Lyssenko and Allan Olson, to recover any of the aircraft that met similar fates under the waves of Lake Michigan. 36175 was recovered in the summer of 1994. They discovered the SBD was down 177 feet. The engine was 80 feet away from the rest of the wreck. 

Once on the surface, the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida, assessed the history and condition of the aircraft. 

“The aircraft’s record card suggests that there was not much time between its acceptance by the Navy and its loss during a training accident. To our knowledge, this particular airplane did not have the illustrious combat history of some of the other lake-recovered airplanes,” Keegan said.  “As we understand it, this SBD became a parts donor for other restorations. Components like the wings likely made it onto other project aircraft, helping complete projects that allow museums across the country to share the incredible story of the Dauntless.”

After years in storage with the National Naval Aviation Museum, the airplane has now been transferred to the Military Aviation Museum. In mid-February it was transported to Virginia Beach, where it is being displayed in its current condition for a short time before a restoration to airworthiness begins.

As the Military Aviation Museum receives more information, they are sharing it on the museum’s Facebook page. There is a current call-out to try to find the pilot and more information about him. If anyone knows Charles L. Ford III or his family, please contact us or the Military Aviation Museum.

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