Helldiver Rising From Deep in Pieces

There are believed to be only two or three others like it in the world

By Greg Bledsoe, Mari Payton, R. Stickney and Eric S. Page
|  Thursday, Aug 19, 2010  |  Updated 2:30 PM PDT
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A rare World War II plane that has been sitting at the bottom of Lower Otay Reservoir for more than 65 years is coming up for air. The Navy SB2C-4 Helldiver is about 90 feet below the surface of the lake in the southern portion of <a title=San Diego County." />

A rare World War II plane that has been sitting at the bottom of Lower Otay Reservoir for more than 65 years is coming up for air. The Navy SB2C-4 Helldiver is about 90 feet below the surface of the lake in the southern portion of San Diego County.

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A World War II bomber that sat at the bottom of a reservoir for decades is rising again.

The Navy SB2C-4 Helldiver sank 90 feet to the bottom of Lower Otay Reservoir 65 years ago. On Wednesday, salvage experts brought up a portion of the aircraft's canopy. The bulk of the plane will be brought up on Thursday afternoon, according to recovery officials.

A crowd gathered Thursday to witness the surfacing of the aircraft. Crews planned to use air bags to float the plane to the surface, and it will then be pulled out of the water by a large crane. 

Depending on the condition of the Helldiver, a museum spokesman said, it could be restored and on display within three years. 

The process to recover and restore the aircraft will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, it's estimated, all of which will be paid for through donations.

The plane was discovered last year by Duane Johnson, who was out on his boat looking for bass when he noticed a strange object on his fish finder.

"We saw what looked like a two by four or something ... something wasn't right," Johnson said. "As I'm looking at the picture more, I see a tail on it."

That was February 2009. Johnson sent photos of the plane to the FAA, and it started an investigation. Underwater video shot last year showed a sliding canopy, with its windows covered in mud. A closer look showed instruments and flight controls in the cockpit and, a few feet away, the skeletal remains of a rudder.

On Tuesday, divers with A&T Recovery and the city of San Diego ranger-divers worked to uncover the plane.
 
“It's fragile," said diver Mark Miller. "We don’t really know what the structure is like -- if it's going to break apart -- so we need to take off as much weight as possible.”

The story behind the ditched plane is almost as interesting as the recovery process.

E.D. Frazar was forced to ditch the Helldiver in Lower Otay Lake on May 28, 1945, when the engine failed. He and Army gunner Joseph Metz swam safely to shore.

"When they were coming in over the lake, they were on a target run and the engine blew up, so they had to ditch because they weren't high enough to bail out," according to Joseph Metz' son Jim.
 
Dick Frazar, the pilot’s son,  flew his own single-engine plane from Texas to witness the events this week.

“It's not about my dad, it's about the heritage and the legacy of our country," Frazer said. "The fact that the aircraft is being recovered is really cool.”

The plane is rare: There are only "maybe two or three others in the world today," San Diego Air and Space Museum CEO Jim Kidrick said. "We have over 200 volunteers who would work on that plane as a labor of love and literally make that airplane brand new."

The Helldiver will eventually be taken to the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Fla., for display.
 

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