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Group Attempting To Raise WWII Plane From Otay Reservoir

Group Attempting To Raise WWII Plane From Otay Reservoir
More than sixty-five years after an SB2C-4 Helldiver made a forced landing in the waters of the Otay Reservoir, the National Naval Aviation Museum based in Pensacola, Florida will attempt to raise the World War II-era dive-bomber from its final resting place.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. A World War II vintage Navy plane is about to begin a new life, if it can be lifted intact from its watery home in Otay Mesa. 65 years ago, the SB2C-4 Helldiver was ditched into Lower Otay Reservoir and has been submerged at the bottom of the water ever since. The Helldiver is a rare warplane, and now, historians want it as part of the National Naval Aviation Museum. The effort to extract the Navy aircraft from its watery home is going on right now at Otay Reservoir. And joining us from his observation area on the shoreline of Otay Reservoir is my guest, Ret. U.S. Navy Captain Robert Rasmussen. He’s director of the National Navy Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida. And, Capt. Rasmussen, good morning.

ROBERT RASMUSSEN (Captain, USN Ret.): Good morning. Good to be with you.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you for being here. I’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. Do you think it’s a good idea to try to take this plane out of the reservoir? Do you think it should’ve been left in the water all these years in the first place? Give us a call with your questions and your comments. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. Capt. Rasmussen, tell us the story. How did this plane wind up in the Otay Reservoir?

CAPT. RASMUSSEN: Well, it was flying out of Brown Field in 1945, attached to VB-14, which is a bombing squadron that was temporarily attached to shore. And the pilot was practicing dive bombing runs. In one of the runs the engine quit and he couldn’t get it started. He made a fortuitous decision to land it in Otay Lake and that’s where it’s been for the last 65 years.

CAVANAUGH: And how was he and his copilot?

CAPT. RASMUSSEN: Fine. They walked away without any injury. Actually, they swam away. Otay Lake was pretty much unoccupied and out in the boondocks then, it still is pretty much, but nobody was around. They had to swim ashore and then walk for several miles and hitchhike back to their base.

CAVANAUGH: And we are talking, that pilot’s name is E.D. Frazar and he’s no longer with us but his family is there looking on as this – the effort to raise this plane is underway at Otay Reservoir. Capt. Rasmussen, what was the role of this plane in aviation history?

CAPT. RASMUSSEN: Well, it was the airplane that the Navy used as a dive bomber and in part as a torpedo bomber during, oh, the latter half of World War II. We started with the SBD Dauntless, that was used throughout the war but this came – this airplane came along, built by Curtiss in about 1943, and it basically made up the major part of the bombing squadron aircraft that the Navy used on carriers during World War II. So it’s very important to our history and something that we don’t currently have in the museum. We want very much to have an example of this important part of our heritage.

CAVANAUGH: How unique is this plane?

CAPT. RASMUSSEN: Pretty unique. We have probably – I think there are four of them in existence in varying conditions. One of them, which belongs to the Commemorative Air Force is still in flying condition. The rest of them are in various states of repair or disrepair. And so we’re going to try to bring this one back to a condition where it appears to be, in all respects, operational but we’re not going to make it flying.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Retired U.S. Navy Captain Robert Rasmussen. He is director of the National Naval Aviation Museum in Florida. And we’re talking about the effort to lift an SB2C-4 Helldiver, a World War II Navy plane, from its home for 65 years, and that is the bottom of Otay Reservoir. We’re taking your calls with your questions and your comments at 1-888-895-5727. Can you tell me, Capt. Rasmussen, when did the National Naval Aviation Museum get involved in this retrieval process?

CAPT. RASMUSSEN: We heard about it a little over a year ago. It was discovered by a fisherman out here at Otay and we immediately set to work to see if it was something that was a viable recovery object. And we made a first exploratory examination of it, oh, a little over – or, a little less than a year ago and this is the second effort, which – in which we hope it culminates in the recovery of the airplane, and we fully expect it will.

CAVANAUGH: What was the exploratory like?

CAPT. RASMUSSEN: Well, the exploratory dive was to see that it was what we thought it was and to examine the parts of the airplane that we could see to see that it wasn’t so badly deteriorated that it was not really worth recovering and to see that it was a possibility that it could be recovered. We found that it was mostly intact and appeared to be in pretty good shape, at least the part of it that we could see. A good part of it was buried in the silt, which is what we’re concerned about right now. We’re removing the silt from around the airplane so it can be safely lifted. So it proved to be something we’re very much interested in and then it was a matter of getting the resources together to go after the airplane.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Capt. Rasmussen, how – you told us how it was discovered, I’m wondering, first of all, where are you right now? Are you at Otay Reservoir?


CAVANAUGH: And what is this – what has this extraction process been like? What kind of machinery is out there on the reservoir?

CAPT. RASMUSSEN: Right now, there are 8 divers onsite and they are rotating into the water to dive on the airplane, which is about 80 feet deep. And we are removing via suction pump a good part of the silt so we can free it from the bottom so it can be recovered. We expect, hopefully, to have that done – a good part of it done today and with a little luck maybe bring it out of the water tomorrow.

CAVANAUGH: And how – and are you watching this process on closed circuit television submerged?

CAPT. RASMUSSEN: No, the – that’s not possible with the situation down at the bottom because it is very dark and the minute you start to dredge to remove the silt, the bottom gets cloudy and maybe the visibility just four or five inches. It’s mostly done by feel by the divers, and which is a very ticklish problem. So it’s not something we can videotape.

CAVANAUGH: Now I know that this Helldiver, being such a very rare World War II vintage plane, was highly sought after when people realized it was at the bottom of Otay Reservoir. How did the Naval Aviation Museum beat out other museums for this project?

CAPT. RASMUSSEN: I guess the main reason is that the airplane belongs to the Navy and the Naval Aviation Museum is part of the Navy. So when an object like this becomes available or is discovered, the Navy always has first option on it. And normally, if we already had one of these airplanes—which we don’t—I probably would’ve allowed some other museum to get involved and eventually bring the airplane up for their collection but it would still remain the property of the Navy and the Navy has never given up ownership of the airplanes that it crashed, no matter how long ago, and so that was the main reason, that we still owned it, number one, and number two, that we very much wanted it for our own collection. So that – those were the two main judgment features of the decision to bring it back to Pensacola.

CAVANAUGH: I am speaking with Ret. U.S. Navy Capt. Robert Rasmussen. He’s director of the National Naval Aviation Museum in Florida. And we’re talking about the efforts to raise the World War II vintage Helldiver plane that has been at the bottom of Otay Reservoir for the last 65 years. Right now, we’re asking, of course, you to join us if you’d like to, any questions or comments at 1-888-895-5727. Joining us now on the line is Taras Lysenko of the A&T Recovery team. They are working to raise the Helldiver from Otay Reservoir. And, Taras, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

TARAS LYSENKO (Co-Owner, A&T Recovery): Hello.


LYSENKO: Thank you for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Now what do – We heard a little bit from Capt. Rasmussen. Tell us more. What’s known about the condition of the plane?

LYSENKO: One quick thing I want to include is the San Diego Ranger divers from the reservoir system, water system…


LYSENKO: …they are participating as well. I wanted to make sure you know that. Okay, now I’m ready for your question. What was it again? Okay.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. It was what do we know about the condition of this plane?

LYSENKO: Not too much. You know, we – we’re able to view the windshield and the canopy and the tail section but the rest of it’s pretty much – was pretty much buried. That’s what we’re doing now is we’re digging it out and once we have her pretty well dug out, we’ll make a really solid assessment. We did pull up a parachute and the parachute is in excellent condition. I – I’d almost say that it’s pretty close to usable.

CAVANAUGH: Now the Captain just told us you’re dealing with a lot of silt right now. How is that – how does that extraction process work?

LYSENKO: We use a – to simplify it, it’s an underwater vacuum, is what we’re using. We term it as a dredge and it operates under what’s called Venturi effect, which is when you – when there’s moving liquid or gas in a direction, it has a tendency to drop the pressure around it, therefore creating a vacuum. So that’s what we do, we pump water really fast and that creates a vacuum so we pump that to a tube and the other tube becomes a vacuum. So the divers are using an underwater vacuum to move – take the dirt off the airplane and place it off to the side.

CAVANAUGH: As I said, you know, in the introduction to this, I know you didn’t hear it, Taras, but this is a very delicate operation. It sounds like it’s very painstaking work. How long have you been at this?

LYSENKO: On this specific plane? Or with airplanes?

CAVANAUGH: Yes, on this specific plane.

LYSENKO: Oh, we just – we started yesterday.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, and how long do you think it’s going to take you?

LYSENKO: We were hoping that we could drudge (sic) the entire thing yesterday but we’re on day two. We’re hoping we don’t have to drudge into day three. We had a couple – a bolt cracked on a pump housing, which that’s put us back a little bit and so we had to shift over, change the pumps and all the hosing and all the gear. But we’re – right now, we’re drudging and we’re moving along pretty quick, so we’re hoping we have the – all the sediment removed today.

CAVANAUGH: Now, tell me a little bit more about this dive team. I know that there is one diver who is rather unusual. He’s a D-Day veteran, from what I understand?

LYSENKO: Yeah, he went in at Omaha Beach. He’s 88 years old. And he, well, he’s a 88-year-old diver. He’s out there.

CAVANAUGH: Uh-huh. And how many divers are out there?



LYSENKO: 8 of them right now. So, and they’re not all on site. They do other things while they’re waiting their turn to dive but there’s 8 total divers, including the San Diego—and I should get the name down straight someday—they’re, you know, they’re from the reservoir water system, divers.


LYSENKO: The – so there’s 4 of them and there’s 4 of our divers.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I was reading about this extraction process and how really slowly you want to go in order to make sure that this plane is intact when it reaches the surface. Tell us a little bit about that.

LYSENKO: Well, we, over the years, have designed a system which accounts for any heave that would occur, you know, any upward and downward unwanted moment – movement and it’s a – it’s – When you look at the system, it doesn’t look that complex but it is sort of complex. We use – it’s – To simplify it, we basically use a system of rubber bands that – and then we use air, pneumatic air, lift attached to the rubber bands that just gently – and it stays so that the airplane is gently lifted in stages so it doesn’t yank out of the bottom and rocket to the surface. It’s gently lifted off the bottom and then gently lifted through the entire water column.

CAVANAUGH: Now I understand that your company, A&T Recovery, has recovered 31 lost airplanes since the 1980s. How did you get into this work?

LYSENKO: Well, I’ve got to update that website. So…

CAVANAUGH: There’s more, huh?

LYSENKO: Yeah, it’s more than that. How do – Everything’s a hobby in life. It should be.


LYSENKO: And my partner and I, Allan Olson, just had a hobby that we – We like to find things that are lost. And we – we lived in the Chicago area so we – in Chicago, they had a training operation where they had two makeshift aircraft carrier flattops where they qualified pilots for aircraft carrier landings in World War II. So in the process of qualifying, I hear different numbers, but I think it’s about 17,000 pilots, they lost about 140 airplanes, which is pretty good for the number of pilots.


LYSENKO: So we started locating those airplanes and then Capt. Rasmussen one day found out about us locating the planes and he said you’re going to – you’re going to recover for the Navy if the Navy wants you to, you know, so that’s how we kind of got into it.

CAVANAUGH: That’s interesting. Now in no way am I trying to, in any way, jinx this project, but what could go wrong?

LYSENKO: We could find that below the silt line theirs is a lack of structural integrity of the airplane. The airplane crashed. You have to remember that. It crashed. It didn’t – it wasn’t set gingerly into the water. It hit the water at whatever the stall speed of the airplane was, which my guess would be about 70 miles an hour. So it hit the water, it is a crash. So we may not be able to see it but there may be a lack of structural integrity in the airframe. It could be broken.


LYSENKO: There – The bottom of the reservoir is full of sediment. That sediment is probably – has a different pH than the water, which, you know, it could be a basic pH or an acidic pH and that could do damage to the structure integrity of the plane over 65 years. We don’t know all that stuff yet. We’re hoping to see – We’re hoping to find it just like the parachute, which is in excellent condition. We’re hoping to find the rest of the airplane in excellent condition but we don’t know yet.

CAVANAUGH: And if it isn’t, is there a point at which you will not raise this airplane if it’s too deteriorated?

LYSENKO: That’s actually not my call. That’s why Capt. Rasmussen’s standing here…


LYSENKO: …so it isn’t…

CAVANAUGH: I’ll be asking him that question in a minute then. Let me ask you, Taras, though, finally, what is it like for you to be part of this process of uncovering lost history?

LYSENKO: Uh, for the most part, it’s a lot of fun.


LYSENKO: There’s a lot of – I guess I’m supposed to have ulcers but I don’t. I smile a little bit too much and I laugh a little bit too much. You know, there’s a whole – I mean, there’s – anything can go wrong. It’s extremely dangerous. We’re lifting heavy objects that we don’t know the exact weights. We’re – that don’t – We can’t figure the balance points on. It’s – there’s a lot of things that, you know – but for the most part, we have a good time.

CAVANAUGH: And also, I know that there are relatives of the pilot and copilot who actually had to ditch this warplane into Otay Reservoir, is – do you feel their excitement as well as this recovery process continues?

LYSENKO: By the number of Facebook postings they’ve put and the number of e-mails they send me and the times they call me per day, yeah, I think they’re pretty excited.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I’m going to let you go back to work. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

LYSENKO: All right. Thank you. Have a good day.

CAVANAUGH: Thank you. That was Taras Lysenko of the A&T Recovery team working to raise the Helldiver Navy plane from Otay Reservoir. And my guest sticking with me is Ret. U.S. Navy Capt. Robert Rasmussen. And I’ll ask you, Capt. Rasmussen, some of the questions that Taras couldn’t answer. How deteriorated would this plane have to be for you to say basically we don’t want to continue with this operation?

CAPT. RASMUSSEN: Well, if it’s a pile of aluminum oxide, we’ll probably leave it there.


CAPT. RASMUSSEN: But right now our thinking is that failure is not an option.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. All right, that’s fair enough. When will you know, though? When – Do you get any…


CAVANAUGH: …kind of timeframe?

CAPT. RASMUSSEN: I think we’ll probably know pretty well later this afternoon when they get more of it uncovered.

CAVANAUGH: And is it still on track to be raised from the reservoir tomorrow morning?

CAPT. RASMUSSEN: Probably not in the morning. There’s an off-chance we might raise it tomorrow afternoon, but we’ve had some delays so those are expected in an operation like this and I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re a little later than that. So we won’t know probably until in the morning.

CAVANAUGH: Well, let’s say all goes well and the Helldiver is raised. How is it going to be transported back to Pensacola?

CAPT. RASMUSSEN: It’ll be disassembled here at Otay and trucked back to Pensacola. And when I say disassembled, it’s a very large airplane. We’ll have to take the wing off of it and remove it from the fuselage entirely and probably take the horizontal and vertical stabilizers off as well. We’ll move back to Pensacola and start work on it.

CAVANAUGH: We have a caller on the line. Jerry is calling us from San Diego. Good morning, Jerry, and welcome to These Days.

JERRY (Caller, San Diego): Good morning. Very fascinated with your whole operation, Captain. I’m a native San Diegan and remember the Helldiver very well in World War II. I’m nearly 79, so it was operational here. I had another question for you about missing aircraft in your museum. I visited the museum here a number of years ago and there was an aircraft that was built in San Diego and it was operational but I think never saw combat. It was called the Ryan FR1 Fireball. And I’m wondering…


JERRY: …if you have a line on that aircraft also.

CAPT. RASMUSSEN: It’s still in the Navy inventory but it is currently on loan to the New England Air Museum, I think it is.

JERRY: Is it available, still?

CAPT. RASMUSSEN: Is it available to us?

JERRY: Or is there just one existing, I guess I should say.

CAPT. RASMUSSEN: There’s just one in existence, right. It was pretty much of an experimental airplane, as you probably know.

JERRY: I see. Well…

CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Jerry. Thanks for the call very much. Capt. Rasmussen, I know that you’re a retired Navy pilot, as well as being the director of the National Naval Aviation Museum. I read you became interested in planes as a child during World War II. What is it like for you to see this plane and others, as Jerry was mentioned (sic), rescued and restored for everyone to see?

CAPT. RASMUSSEN: Well, I guess aviation has always been a sort of a passion with me since I was a – since I was a kid growing up in the Sacramento Valley and I could see them flying out of various parts of the valley and San Francisco Bay area. And I just got hooked on it, and am still hooked on it. I guess it’s a great pleasure and a real honor to be able to be involved with the history of Naval aviation, and these airplanes, like the one we’re trying to get up right now, are a very big part of that history.

CAVANAUGH: When the Helldiver is raised from Otay Reservoir and when it is taken back to Pensacola, do you have a timeframe on how long it might take to restore this plane to be put on exhibition?

CAPT. RASMUSSEN: Well, we really can’t say that until we’ve gotten it out of the water and assessed how much work has to be done on it but it would not be uncommon to take two or three years to get it into display condition.

CAVANAUGH: You know, I think it’s amazing for some people to think that this plane has been sitting at the bottom of a reservoir for 65 years and yet in speaking with Taras Lysenko, he apparently has lost – he has apparently recovered a lot of lost airplanes. How common is this for old Navy planes to be sitting at the bottom of some lake or reservoir for years on end?

CAPT. RASMUSSEN: Well, we occasionally run across one in various venues but Lake Michigan has been by far the most lucrative venue with respect to this type of aircraft. Matter of fact, all the airplanes that Taras has recovered have come to the museum.

CAVANAUGH: Isn’t that interesting?

CAPT. RASMUSSEN: And from there we’ve – we spread them around the country pretty well. As a matter of fact, there are a number of them that are here in San Diego in the San Diego Air and Space Museum (sic) and in the carrier Midway, airplanes that came out of Lake Michigan.

CAVANAUGH: Now who is paying for the removal and restoration of this plane?

CAPT. RASMUSSEN: My private foundation is a support organization for the museum, which is a Navy entity, and they provide the resources for these kinds of efforts. Usually they’re privately funded by people that are very much interested in these types of airplanes.

CAVANAUGH: Well, I have to thank you for your time. I know that you’re waiting, on edge, hoping that this goes well, and I wish you lots of luck, Captain.

CAPT. RASMUSSEN: Well, thanks very much. We appreciate it and it’s a pleasure talking to you.

CAVANAUGH: That is Ret. U.S. Navy Capt. Robert Rasmussen. He is director of the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Florida. And I also spoke with Taras Lysenko, who is with the A&T—he’s the T in the A&T Recovery team. If you’d like to comment, please go online, Stay with us for hour two of These Days, coming up in just a few minutes here on KPBS.

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