Even Airplane Crashes Have a Silver Lining!
July 28, 2014
During a recent patron request, I was asked to look up the service records of an aviator who flew in World War II and was stationed on the U.S.S. Enterprise. I knew that the Midwest Genealogy Center would have many different types of materials to help with this request, and I was right.
MGC has a book on that very ship titled Enterprise: America’s Fightingest Ship and the Men Who Helped Win World War II by Barrett Tillman. In addition to this book, there are a number of other books helpful to those doing military research. After going through this aviator’s service records, I found several references to crashes during training and was intrigued. I decided to follow-up with some research on the subject of pilot training and airplane crashes.
I had previously heard descriptions from veterans that landing an airplane on an aircraft carrier was like “landing on a matchbox bobbing up and down in the middle of the ocean.” To better train pilots for upcoming combat in World War II, two training carriers were built named U.S.S. Sable and U.S.S Wolverine. These carriers operated on Lake Michigan, training Navy pilots. As training vessels, mishaps, accidents, crashes, and losses from the decks were expected, between 1942 and 1945, there were 128 losses and over 200 accidents. Out of all this, only eight pilots were killed. There were120,000 successful landings, and an estimated 35,000 pilots were qualified. The training program was considered a huge success.
Because they crashed in fresh, cold water, the sunken and historic airplanes in Lake Michigan represent the largest and best-preserved group of U.S. Navy aircraft in the world. From a historical perspective, they provide a wealth of knowledge about the history of naval aviation. Vast amounts of information can be gleaned from and memorialized through these special objects. Aircraft lost in Lake Michigan usually exhibit excellent preservation characteristics. Many of these wrecked airplanes have been found in good condition: tires inflated, parachutes preserved, leather seats maintained, and engine crankcases full of oil. Often, paint schemes are well preserved, as well, allowing for easier identification.
Several aircraft have been raised 70 years after they sank and have been slowly restored to factory new conditions. They are now on display in museums around the United States, and this trend continues as new planes are brought up, restored, and displayed. It is a strange thing to say how fortunate we are that these airplanes fell overboard!
David C. J.
Midwest Genealogy Center