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Michigan company recovers WWII planes from bottom of Lake Michigan

Restored World War II plane recovered from Lake Michigan // WSBT 22 PHOTO
Restored World War II plane recovered from Lake Michigan // WSBT 22 PHOTO
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On this Veterans Day, we remember an important part of World War II history that took place on the waters of Lake Michigan.

The U.S. Navy used the lake to train thousands of pilots heading to fight in the Pacific.

Pilots learned how to take off and land on makeshift aircraft carriers.

When Pearl Harbor was attacked - the U.S. Navy was not prepared to wage a large-scale war.

The U.S. had to ramp up airplane production and train pilots to fly them.

Lake Michigan proved to be a great spot for this naval aircraft training. It was protected from enemy fire because it's insulated by U.S. and Canadian territory.

17,000 pilots became certified naval aviators over the lake.

About 130 aircraft were lost to the depths of the lake, and 10 pilots lost their lives there between March 1942 and September 1945.

Close to 50 of those have since been recovered. Many of those efforts are thanks to A & T Recovery, a company that works to rescue these forgotten aircraft.

"It was a dangerous operation – especially having to do it all year long. And they had to, because the war didn't stop.," says Taras Lyssenko, A&T Recovery General Manager.

Decades after the last plane dove into the lake, A & T Recovery seeks to bring them back out to see the light of day.

They use a side-scan sonar to find the aircraft underwater. It's similar to an ultrasound.

Lyssenko says, "It uses a sound wave, and it listens for an echo return, and draws an image of it."

The process of recovering and restoring the planes is a long process.

Three of recovered planes are currently at the Air Zoo in Kalamazoo. One is fully restored, while two are undergoing restoration.

At least 100 volunteers are working to get the planes just as they appeared when they sunk in the water.

Restoration volunteer Kevin Mazer says, "We have to create our own tools to be able to fix the parts that – those tools aren't available anymore."

"When these airplanes come out of the water they are covered inside and out with mussel shells, and they're living creatures," says Greg Ward, Air Zoo Aircraft Conservator. "They're invasive species that were brought into Lake Michigan, and they cause corrosion."

Greg Ward has been restoring planes at the Air Zoo for 28 years.

At the moment, he and restoration volunteers have their hands full with these two planes now, but that's not distracting him from the need to rescue others resting at the bottom of the lake. He is concerned that time is ticking.

"Think about all of the other airplanes that are sitting on the bottom of the lake, covered in these mussels. Now, it's become almost an emergency to get funding, and get these airplanes recovered before they get turned to dust underwater," says Ward.

That's something A & T Recovery and the Air Zoo won't stop working on.

The Air Zoo invites schools and the public to come help with the restoration process.

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"Instead of doing it in a black box somewhere - where it goes in and five years later 'voila' look at our new airplane - we're actually doing it on our exhibit floor because we want our community to not only see it and watch the evolution of it, but we also want them to take part in it," said Air Zoo CEO Troy Thrash.

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