Divers work to lift WWII plane from California lake

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 20, 2010

SAN DIEGO (AP) — Salvage divers gently cleared away silt and mud covering a WWII dive bomber buried in the bottom of the San Diego reservoir, carefully working Thursday to lift the rare plane from the water 65 years after it was ditched during a training run.

Bob Metz, 84, who watched the painstaking work, said he recalls his oldest brother, Sgt. Joseph Metz, telling about how he and the pilot — who have both since died — managed to swim ashore to safety, then hitchhiked back to the nearby military base.

‘‘It’s going to be interesting to see it,’’ said Metz of Montebello, Calif. ‘‘I remember when he got a jeep and brought me up here and told me, ’You want to see where we ditched the plane?’’

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The aircraft was forgotten until Duane Johnson and his friend, who were searching for bass, spotted the outline of the plane on an electronic fish finder last year.

‘‘We were dumbfounded,’’ Johnson recounted Thursday as he stood at the reservoir’s edge next to Metz. ‘‘We didn’t know if there were bodies down there or if it was something simple like a remote-controlled plane.’’

Johnson later learned he had discovered the rare World War II the SB2C Helldiver, which crashed May 28, 1945.

If it can be restored, the National Naval Aviation Museum hopes the Helldiver fills a void in its collection, considered to be one of the world’s largest displays of naval aviation history with more than 150 planes.

‘‘We’ve been looking for a Helldiver for quite some time,’’ said Navy Capt. Ed Ellis, of the museum in Pensacola, Fla.

Only a handful of the 5,100 dive bombers manufactured during World War II still exist. One of the Helldiver’s nicknames was the ‘‘Beast’’ because of its reputation for being difficult to handle.

‘‘At the end of the war, they were obsolete and so they just chopped them down, melted them and made most of them into tin cans,’’ Ellis said. ‘‘It wasn’t a particularly good airplane.’’

The aircraft was plagued by problems from the start, with the first prototype crashing in February 1941. The second went down as well when it was pulling out of a dive.

The British Royal Navy and the Royal Australian Air Force canceled their orders.

The U.S. military sent untried planes to recently commissioned carriers, and some saw disastrous results with wing folding mechanisms failing, bouncing tailhooks, leaky hydraulic lines and collapsing tail wheels.

Over the years, the Curtiss-Wright Corp. implemented a total of 96,675 engineering changes during the war to correct the problems and meet Navy requests to make it more combat-worthy. By the war’s end, the aircraft overcame most of its woes and had proven itself in action, experts said.

San Diego shut down the Lower Otay Reservoir to the public during this week’s salvage operation.

Taras Lysenko, a former Army ranger who has rescued 33 planes for the museum, said divers have been working with zero visibility while they prepare the plane to be lifted carefully out of the water without further damaging it.

Crews also kept an eye out for anything bubbling to the surface that could indicate oil or fuel was leaking out and contaminating the city’s drinking water.

A former volunteer at the museum left money to cover the cost of the plane’s extraction, Ellis said. The museum only salvages planes in which the crew survived. If anyone died, the site is considered to be a grave and is not touched, he said.

The museum has located hundreds of submerged aircraft, mostly in Lake Michigan and some oceans.

‘‘This is always an exciting event. Some aircraft have been pulled up and we’ve found the batteries still hold a charge, or there is still water in the canteen left by the pilots in the cockpit, or some of the lights still work,’’ Ellis said. ‘‘We’re always amazed by what still works and is in good condition.’’