Wildcat Recovered and Restored After 48 Years Underwater

Story written by Elizabeth Rondon


In March of 1944 a Wildcat F4F3, flown by Ens. John Forsberg on his 8th T.O., took off from the deck of the USS Wolverine and dropped into the waters of Lake Michigan. Forsberg barely swam clear of the side wheel paddles and was picked up by the picket boat, a cold and wet Ensign. The Board of Inquiry blamed him for not having the throttle full forward and theWildcat found in Lake Michigan flaps not down for T.O. Later, Ens. Forsberg had proper evidence to show he had full power and proper flap setting and that the aircraft lost power due to a blown cylinder.

In the early 90’s, A&T recoveries had discovered some of the 200 or so Navy aircraft at the bottom of Lake Michigan and recovered several for the Navy. As payment they received two excellent F4F3’s and put them on the market in December of 1992 through Mark Clark of Courtesy Aircraft. Mark Clark then called potential customers. Jim Porter was on that call list. Jim called Dick Hanson asking about restoring Warbirds due to his P40 project and also asked if he would like to see the two F4F’s. After seeing the Wildcats, a partnership developed in 10 minutes. Dick stored the Wildcat temporarily in his hangar at Aurora airport. Dick then called Nick Quint and Dick Wixom and suggested they come down and view a surprise. This is the story of the wonderful restoration done by Blackhawk Aircraft Maintenance – Nick, Dick and his crew.

Wildcat found in Lake Michigan

Wildcat’s first flight of day after laying 200 feet below Lake Michigan’s surface for 48 years. The recovered aircraft was towed beneath the recovery boat at 1 knot to Crowleys boat yard where they were then brought to surface.

During World War II, the passenger steamer – SS SEEANDBEE was converted into the aircraft carrier, USS Wolverine.


Wildcat Interior Instrument Panels

1944 Wildcat F4F3 Arives to Retoration Experts at Blackhawk Aircraft MaintenanceWhat totally amazing shape after 48 year! The cockpit was unbelievable.Wildcat Interior Instrument Panels The instrument fascia panel was clean with pencil markings on it and the leather glare shield was flexible and re-used. All the knobs and levers worked plus the landing gear still cranked up.

The instruments looked like they could be overhauled.

The oxygen bottle had a fresh supply of 1944 O2 and the battery was re-charged. The engine gear was free of rust and the vacuum tubes probably would have worked if we found a radio. The aux fuel pump was OK and yellow tagged!

Wildcat Gas TankWildcat gas tanks
Wildcat Oil Tank
Wildcat Tail Section

The engine mount and other important structural parts of the firewall forward components were not corroded and able to be re-used.

Wildcat FirewallWildcat Firewall
Wildcat Spar
Wildcat Engine

When first pulled out of Lake Michigan and sitting in Dick Hanson’s hangar, interestingly, several fishing hooks were found in the engine area. All engine controls were free and re-usable. A fresh P&W 1830 from JRS in Minneapolis is installed.

Wildcat Engine 2Wildcat Firewall
Wildcat Engine 3
Wildcat Engine 4
Wildcat WindshieldWildcat Firewall
Wildcat Plexiglas Canopy
Wildcat Control Surfaces

Words from Dick Hanson ~ After acquiring the aircraft, one tire still had 1943 air in it. The other took air from a compressor and stayed inflated for two years. The landing gear had some minor corrosion and was fixed.

Wildcat Fuselage PaintingWildcat Firewall
Wildcat’s First Run
Wildcat’s First Run 2

Except for the radio controls and the switch panels, everything in the cockpit was re-usable except, of course, the instruments and switches. The radio in the aft fuselage area was perfect with their original stencils and the paint was perfect. This junction box was re-used and the battery took a charge.

Wildcat AvionicsWildcat Firewall
Wildcat Avionics 2
Wildcat Avionics

Wildcat’s Wings – built by Ezell Aviation, Breckenridge, Texas Nelson Ezell at Breckenridge Texas built the wings and elevators.

Wildcat WingsWildcat Firewall
Wildcat Wings
Wildcat Elevators

Bill Dodds, pilot exceptional, taxis out for the first flight in 50 years. This is the first aircraft to come from the water to be returned to flight status after 50 years.

Wildcat First Flight PrepWildcat Firewall
First Flight Prep 2
First Flight Prep 3

Wildcat’s first flight and aerial photos and first landing.

Wildcat First FlightWildcat Firewall
Wildcat First Flight 2
Wildcat First Flight 3

Wildcat’s final paint & markings. FROM WATERY GRAVE TO FLIGHT STATUS IN JUST 2 YEARS 3 MONTHS!

Wildcat Paint & MarkingsWildcat Firewall
Wildcat Paint & Markings 2
Wildcat Paint & Markings 3

A tribute to pilot Ens. John A tribute to pilot Ens. JohnForsberg. These pictures show a special tribute to Ens. John Forsberg, who saw the restoration just 3 months before he succumbed to cancer. He was glad that the evidence had cleared his reputation up.


Watch this video documenting the restoration of a WWII Navy Grumman F4F-3 "Wildcat" fighter aircraft recovered from Lake Michigan, 47 years after is was lost in a training accident on March 1, 1944.

Ensign John Forsberg, a Chicago Navy pilot, was located 50 years after the accident and was reconnected with his past as a WWI decorated pilot who flew the same model aircraft that Chicago's Butch O'Hare flew when he earned his Congressional Medal of Honor for saving the USS Lexington, one of our front line Navy carriers near the end of the war, from an attack by a squadron of Japanese Mitsubishi "Betty" bombers on a mission to sink the American carrier. 48 year old Wildcat Restored

This is a dramatic World War II "cold case", reopened by the curiosity dramatic World War II of two of Chicago's enthusiastic collectors of WWII aircraft, who were interested in every detail of the history of the aircraft recovered from 200 feet of water, 47 years later, and the pilot that flew the aircraft 47 years earlier during the war against Japan.

Learn more at The Butch O'Hare Project

Call us today for pricing or information!

608 755-1941

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