During the height of World War II, U.S. Navy Lt Charles Ford III was learning to land on an aircraft carrier when something went terribly wrong. When an airplane ahead of him in the beehive fouled the deck, Ford ditched his Douglas SBD-5 dive bomber, and it sank to the bottom of Lake Michigan. What was he doing there, and even more, why was there an aircraft carrier on Lake Michigan? Well, there was, but it was only a pretend carrier.
In the run-up to global conflict in the early 1940s, the Navy wisely determined that training carrier pilots off the coasts of the U.S. would leave the ships vulnerable to enemy submarines. So, they commandeered a pair of sidewheel cruise ships on Lake Michigan and slapped carrier decks on them. Countless Naval aviators earned their carrier qualifications on the USS Sable and USS Wolverine.
But not all the pilots were successful all the time, and Lt. Ford suffered botched the landing, and while avoiding the carrier, he crashed the SB-D into the water. Ford received head lacerations because of the accident. He survived and later went on to earn his carrier qualification.
His SBD stayed in cold storage, sitting on the bottom of the lake for more than a half century, that is until it was recovered in the 1990s. Much of its original paint survived the decades under water, and ultimately, the airplane was put on display at the Military Aviation Museum at Virginia Beach, Virginia, along with Lt. Ford’s seatbelt buckle that recovered from the wreck.
After a circuitous path to get there, the Dauntless is now cleared for restoration and may fly again, though in the meantime, it tells a moving story of the passage of time and loss. The dive bomber is missing its wings and, as you can see, other major components, but aircraft have been restored with less to work with.
While you might not be able to see the dive bomber still—it was slated to enter restoration at the end of March—the museum itself is a terrific destination, and it is open to the public.