Recovery crews say the rare World War II bomber is still in one piece
Divers raised a rare World War II dive bomber to the surface of a San Diego reservoir Friday, and a member of the salvage team said the long-sunken aircraft appears to be intact.
Dick Frazer, the son of the original pilot, said, "It's amazing that a plane that's been at the bottom of the lake for 65 years is in such good condition."
The SB2C Helldiver was dislodged from the reservoir floor Friday and brought to the surface after divers spent two days in zero-visibility water removing mud and debris that was holding the plane down.
"This is a real special moment for our family," Frazar said. "Certainly worth the unplanned vacation to California."
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.
Shortly before 4 p.m. the crew began to move the aircraft from the surface of the water to shore. 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 began to salvage 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.
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.