PORTAGE, Mich. (WOOD) — Crews at the Air Zoo in Portage are at work fixing up an FM-2 Wildcat, one of the U.S. Navy’s most successful fighter planes for its early role in the Pacific theater during World War II.
How the plane arrived at the aerospace museum is a story in itself. It began Dec. 18, 1944, when the engine of Navy pilot William Forbes’s Wildcat failed during takeoff from the USS Sable. At the time, the aircraft carrier was stationed in Lake Michigan for training.
“It went off the front edge of an aircraft carrier (and) basically got rolled over,” Air Zoo President and CEO Troy Thrash explained Thursday. “Its tail got caught in a paddle wheel and sheared off.”
The pilot made it out OK but the wreckage ended up sinking 200 feet to the bottom of Lake Michigan. Then, in 2012 — 68 years later — it was discovered, brought back to the surface and retrieved by crews on behalf of the National Naval Aviation Museum and its foundation. The plane was lent to the Air Zoo for restoration the following year.
“From the cockpit (to the) back, (it) was all gone,” said Air Zoo volunteer Phil LaVoy, who is overseeing the Wildcat’s restoration. “The tail section survived. We repaired that. But everything in between those two areas was totally reconstructed over a period of about four years.”
Nine years and 1,500 volunteers into the project, a recent announcement gave the restoration a whole new meaning.
Wildcats were flown by eight Medal of Honor recipients — the most of any single-engine fixed-wing plane in American history. Because of its symbolic importance, the Wildcat being restored by the Air Zoo earned a space in the future National Medal of Honor Museum in Arlington, Texas.
The agreement stemmed from an ongoing partnership between the Air Zoo, National Naval Aviation Museum and the National Medal of Honor Museum. Talks regarding the Wildcat’s future home started in late 2021. Per the agreement, the Air Zoo provides the labor to restore the plane, while the other two museums handle the necessary parts and funding.
The plane was previously expected to go on display in the National Naval Aviation Museum, given its ties to the Navy. However, the three parties eventually agreed on the National Medal of Honor Museum due to the Wildcat’s prominence with America’s highest military honor.
Rob Shenk, who serves as chief content officer for the National Medal of Honor Museum, says the Wildcat was at the top of the list of desired exhibits.
“We knew that this was the plane that would help us tell the most number of Medal of Honor stories,” Shenk explained. “This is the plane that Americans flew in some of the darkest, most difficult days of World War II… in some of the most challenging places, flying from Guadalcanal, flying from aircraft carriers, flying from Wake Island.”
In turn, those with the Air Zoo are thrilled to be writing another chapter in this plane’s unique history.
“To me, they couldn’t have picked a better place to put it,” LaVoy said.
“Everybody’s going to know that it was restored here in Kalamazoo, at the Air Zoo, by the entire West Michigan community,” Thrash added.
Restoration is expected to be finished in the next 20 months. The plane will be delivered by semi-truck all the way to Arlington in time for its 2024 opening.