Chicagoland's Only Aviation Museum

Special Museum Programs for Schools

Video: Retrieval of the Wildcat Fighters From Lake Michigan

In Chicago over 50 years ago, during the war years of World War II, two passenger steamers were converted into aircraft carriers for use on Lake Michigan to qualify naval pilots for carrier duty. Eight takeoffs and landings were required to qualify off either the deck of the USS Wolverine or the USS Sable.

The Wolverine and the Sable operated daily out of Navy Pier, while the aircraft took off from Glenview Naval Air Station. Over 13,000 pilots qualified for aircraft carrier landings this way including former President, George Bush.

An estimated 175 aircraft crashed during these training flights going into the "drink" of Lake Michigan. Until 10 years ago there existed no salvage equipment sophisticated enough to locate and recover these aircraft. They remained on the bottom of Lake Michigan until December of 1990 when Pensacola Naval Air Station contracted A&T Recovery, a Chicago salvage company, to recover some of those aircraft for static display in their museum. During 1991 and 1992, A&T Recovery successfully salvaged 12 of those aircraft through the use of 1944 deck logs (journals), sonar equipment, remote control robots, and television cameras.

Two of the aircraft recovered from Lake Michigan were F4F-3 Wildcat fighters. One of those was the aircraft Lt. (j.g.) John Forsberg had flown off the Wolverine 48 years earlier into the "drink". It was found 27 miles east of Evanston in 200 feet of water. This Wildcat was recovered in such remarkable condition, that Forsberg was able to vindicate accusations made about pilot error being the cause of his crash 48 years earlier. Many of the instruments in the cockpit of this Wildcat still moved and the engine throttle was still in the forward position disputing accusations to the contrary and thereby vindicating Lt. (j.g.) John Forsberg.

Though under 200 feet of water for 48 years and sitting on its nose with the right wing broken off, the cold waters of Lake Michigan had done an amazing job of preserving this Wildcat. The following items were found to be preserved by the cold waters of the lake:

It took two and a half years to totally restore this Wildcat, but on July 18, 1994 it became the first WWII plane recovered from water to be returned to flight status.

Background on the Wildcat

The Grumman Wildcat first flew in 1937 as a prototype. The plane was originally designed as a bi-plane. The Navy and the Marines received their first non-folding wing Wildcats in 1940. By 1941 the Navy and Marines had a total of 185 F4F-3 Wildcats. And by 1942 the wildcat was the only fighter in the naval inventory. The Wildcat was a stubby fighter with a 1,200 horse power Pratt & Whitney 14 cylinder engine and four 50 caliber Browning machine guns with just 38 seconds fire power. Despite the "roller-skate" narrow landing gear that had to be hand cranked 29 turns to retract, the Wildcat was a sturdy aircraft with good construction and diving speed which made it effective against the Japanese "Betty" bombers and "Zero" fighters.

Butch O'Hare's Medal of Honor Flight

On February 20, 1942 Butch O'Hare single handedly attacked 8 twin engine Japanese "Betty" bombers. O'Hare shot down 5 of the Japanese bombers in as many minutes, making him the first naval "ace" of WW II and winning him the nation's highest military decoration, the Medal of Honor.

The Butch O'Hare Project

The United States Navy, the City of Chicago, McDonalds Restaurants and the Air Classics Museum of Aviation will be installing an actual F4F-3 Wildcat fighter into O'Hare International Airport this fall. The F4F-3 is the same model aircraft that Butch O'Hare flew when he became the first naval ace of World War II. This Grumman Wildcat is currently being restored by members of Air Classics Museum to the camouflage colors and insignia of Butch's Wildcat when flown on February 20, 1942. His heroism during the Pacific air war earned him a medal of honor and is the reason that O'Hare International Airport carries his name.

Artist Concept of the Butch O'Hare Exhibit

The museum's aircraft is one of a handful of Wildcats the Navy commissioned A&T Recovery, in 1990, to salvage from the bottom of Lake Michigan where it rested for almost 50 years. This aircraft in one of the 175 planes that entered the "drink" during training exercises conducted by the Navy out of Glenview Naval Air Station during WW-II. These training exercises were used to qualify naval pilots in carrier deck landings. Utilizing the decks of the aircraft carriers USS Wolverine and USS Sable over 13,000 pilots were qualified to enter the war effort in exercises taking place literally in Chicago's back yard.

The US Navy has loaned this F4F-3 Wildcat to Air Classics Museum for restoration and installation into O'Hare Airport, with the full cooperation of the City of Chicago, and the sponsorship of McDonalds Restaurants. Once restored this aircraft will be displayed in terminal two where it will appear to be suspended just inches above a replicated deck of an aircraft carrier with it's tail hook down in simulation of an actual carrier deck landing. While the base of the replicated carrier deck will graphically reconstruct, with text and photos, the heroic story of Butch O'Hare's Medal of Honor flight for millions of visitors and residents of Chicago each year.

Please call (630) 466-0888 about booking a tour or educational presentation.

Air Classics Museum of Aviation
43W624 US Route 30
Sugar Grove, IL 60554
Phone: (630) 466-0888

Web site supported by: Roth's Consulting 

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