|Taras Lyssenko, right, enthusiastically champions the efforts to raise Navy aircraft from Lake Michigan for museum displays. Behind him is a corroded FM-2 Wildcat that will be reborn as a complete static display aircraft. Conrad Huffstutler, left, has a pristine FM-2 parked next to this relic for comparison. (photo by Frederick A. Johnsen)
By Frederick A. Johnsen
July 30, 2013 - It's a pretty good bet if your warbird arrives at AirVenture lashed to a trailer like Ahab to Moby Dick, it's not going to fly in the air show.
But there's a corroded FM-2 Wildcat fuselage in the Warbirds area that draws a steady crowd, and there's even a move afoot to have it judged as the Most Original Warbird at AirVenture 2013!
This waterlogged Wildcat is under the stewardship of Taras Lyssenko, whose A&T Recovery organization has raised around 40 Navy aircraft from chilly Lake Michigan. Lyssenko knows of at least 80 more that slumber with the mussels until they can be privately funded for retrieval and restoration.
The grind of aviator training in World War II saw many splashdowns in Lake Michigan. The Navy has maintained ownership of these aircraft, and their recovery is accomplished for historical purposes, Lyssenko explains. The Naval Aviation Museum Foundation administers the program, and no tax dollars are involved in the recovery and restoration for museums, Lyssenko explains.
Capt. Ed Ellis is the Foundation's vice president for development. He says restorations, whether for the Navy museum at Pensacola or other museums, can cost $250,000 for aircraft recovery and $500,000 to $1 million for full-up restoration-all from donations.
Lyssenko says some advocates wish to see all of the recovered aircraft made flyable; others want all to remain grounded museum pieces. So far, the Navy has traded four aircraft that subsequently flew with new owners; the rest are returned to static-display purposes in a variety of museums.
The Lake Michigan haul has included some very rare birds - a Douglas SBD Dauntless that served during the pivotal Battle at Midway in 1942, the only Vought SB2U Vindicator extant; and the only known "birdcage" Corsair, so-called because its early ribbed canopy reminded pilots of a birdcage.
Does Lyssenko pursue any terrestrial Navy aircraft wrecks for recovery? "Nah...that would be too easy," he jokes. His company owns the boats and equipment involved in locating and recovering the lake wrecks, but it is not his livelihood. "It's a hobby; we think it's cool to go out in the water and find things," Lyssenko says. "It doesn't support us."
Sonar maps the lake bottom to give initial indications of the presence of aircraft. Then, robotic submersibles are sent down to image the wrecks, Lyssenko explains. With a number of known aircraft available for recovery and restoration, Lyssenko acts as an advocate, trying to place projects with backers and museums that will meet with Navy approval. "I make everybody happy with each other," he adds.
"You'll never see me doing any restoration."
Recovery of the wilted Wildcat that Lyssenko brought to AirVenture has been financially supported by warbird owner Chuck Greenhill, Lyssenko says. The impending static restoration will be handled by an experienced crew at the Kalamazoo Air Zoo museum in Michigan; from there, this Wildcat will be displayed in an appropriate museum.
He estimates 90 percent of the wreck will be useful in the restoration, once the freshwater mussels are scoured off the airframe. Shallow-water zebra mussels are a problem sometimes, but Lyssenko says the mussel problem is exacerbated by deep-water quagga mussels. "Those things go down hundreds of feet."
The top of the Wildcat's cowling is badly corroded, indicative of its inverted resting position when it rolled off the carrier deck after engine failure on takeoff. Lyssenko says the carrier steamed over the Wildcat, but its plucky pilot survived the ordeal.
Parked beside the corroded 'Cat is a pristine flying Wildcat from private sources that shows what can be accomplished. Both will be featured in a joint Warbirds in Review presentation 1 p.m. Friday. (See also Shotgun Wildcat story.)