Into The Light Again Part 2

26 Feb

A Slice of Life

Bill Lites

As far as accidents is concerned, the Navy has also said that during that same time period, approximately 250 aircraft were lost in Lake Michigan, for multiple reasons, (only 21 pilots were lost).  It should be noted that the U.S. Coast Guard was tasked with the job of providing “crash boats” that followed the carriers for the purpose of rescuing any downed pilots who had to ditch in the lake.

U.S. Coast Guard “Crash Boat”

To date only about 75 of those aircraft have been found and recovered from the bottom of the lake.  As it happens, several years ago, the Valiant Air Command (VAC) Warbird Museum in Florida, where I volunteer as a tour guide, received an F4F Wildcat (FM-1 #414994) fighter aircraft that was recovered from the lake in1993, and restored it to static display condition.  When recovered the aircraft was in remarkably good condition after having sat 300’ underwater on the bottom of Lake Michigan for almost 50 years.  The aircraft’s paint was still blue and the insignias were still clearly readable.

    An F4F Wildcat Fighter Recovery from Lake Michigan

The restoration took five years of loving care by the VAC’s volunteer mechanics.  Most of the restoration crew at the VAC were ex-Grumman employees who had built these aircraft during WWII.  Then after the war, when they retired, many of them had moved to central Florida, and when they heard about our restoration, they wanted to be a part of the project.  They did an absolutely fabulous restoration job, and the aircraft looks like it just came off the assembly line.  

      F4F Wildcat Fighter (414994) Static Display at VAC

While the restoration crew was hard at work, they thought they would try and find out who the pilot was, flying the aircraft the day it ended up in the lake, and what had happened to him.  They did some research, and discovered that he didn’t go down with the aircraft, that his name was Ensign William E. “Dixie” Howell, that he had survived the war, he was still alive (then age 75), and he lived in the small town of Ocala in Central Florida.

      F4F Pilot Ensign W. E. “Dixie” Howell

When the restoration was complete, the museum decided to invite “Dixie” to the dedication ceremony there at the VAC in 1997.  The first thing “Dixie” said when he saw the aircraft was, “I can’t believe it.  That aircraft looks better now than it did the day I crashed it in the lake!”  They took a picture of “Dixie” in the cockpit with a big smile on his face.  I can just imagine how he must have felt.  Here he was looking at the aircraft that he thought he would never see again, much less be able to sit in the cockpit at the controls.  The picture, in his mind, must have been of the last thing he saw as he exited that aircraft after he ditched in Lake Michigan in 1943.   And now he was sitting in that same cockpit 54 years later.  What a memorable occasion that must have been for “Dixie.”

    Dixie & F4F Wildcat (414994) Meet Again

Recently the VAC museum acquired its second Great Lakes recovery aircraft on temporary loan from the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, FL.  This SBD-5 (436291) was recovered by the Navy in 1993 and restored to static display condition by the Naval Aviation Museum before it was loaned to the VAC museum in 2019.  WWII aircraft recoveries from cold fresh water lakes has always made for easier restorations than those from the world’s warm salt water oceans, because of the rapid growth of the coral and the arthropod population in the warmer waters.

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SBD-5 (436291) Static Display at VAC

However, indications from recent Lake Michigan recoveries show that in the last ten years or so, the Zebra & Quagga Mussels (arthropods) have invaded the lake, and are attaching themselves to the derelict aircraft structures, and many other things.  The mussel’s secretion attacks and eats away the paint and even the aluminum metal aircraft structural surfaces.  This makes it much more difficult (and expensive) to restore the aircraft to static condition.  This is especially true with those restorations where the aircraft is being restored back to its original flight condition.  

The next time you are in the Central Florida area, be sure to make one of your stops the VAC Warbird Museum and take a look at our beautifully restored aircraft, some of which are seeing the light-of-day again, for the first time, after many years in the cold dark waters of Lake Michigan.

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    —–The End—–

Bill is a retired Mechanical engineer living with his wonderful artist/writer wife, DiVoran, of 61 years in Titusville, Florida. He was born and raised in the Southwest, did a tour of duty with the U.S. Navy, attended Northrop University in Southern California and ended up working on America’s Manned Space Program for 35 years. He currently is retired and spends most of his time building and flying R/C model airplanes, traveling, writing blogs about his travels for Word Press and supporting his wife’s hobbies with framing, editing and marketing.  He also volunteers with a local church Car Care Ministry and as a tour guide at the Valiant Air Command Warbird Museum there in Titusville.  Bill has two wonderful children, two outstanding grandchildren, and a loving sister and her husband, all of whom also live in Central Florida, so he and DiVoran are rewarded by having family close to spend lots of quality time with.




One of Bill’s favorite Scriptures is:  John 10:10

One Response to “Into The Light Again Part 2”

  1. ludyja February 26, 2020 at 7:30 am #

    Fascinating, Bill. Great post. Thoroughly enjoyed reading this post and the previous one. Love ya, bud!

    Liked by 1 person

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