SAN DIEGO – Joe Corsi remembers being flown to Hope, Ark., in 1943 to work on a plane that had made a forced landing because of electrical problems.
The plane was an SB2C-4 Helldiver, one that Corsi never forgot because of all the glitches he discovered.
“They sent me to do a repair job, but I had a devil of a time with that plane,” said Corsi, 87, who spent 41 years in the Navy as an aviation mechanic and now lives in San Diego. “Whoever got that plane got a lemon.”
One of the few remaining SB2C-4 Helldivers rests at the bottom of Lower Otay Reservoir. Its pilot, Navy Ensign E.D. Frazar, made an emergency water landing after experiencing engine failure during a practice bombing run on May 28, 1945.
On Thursday, the aircraft will be the target of a salvage team that will judge the chances of recovering and restoring it. Toward that end, the San Diego Water Department will host three assessment dives – at 9 a.m., 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.
Capt. Robert Rasmussen, director of the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Fla., will be very interested in the findings. He’ll make the final decision on whether the plane will be salvaged and eventually displayed at the museum, which recently lost its SB2C-4 when the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum recalled it for its Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles International Airport.
Similar recovery projects have run from $35,000 to $250,000, and the restoration work could cost more than $200,000, Rasmussen said.
“We’ll know a lot more (Thursday) or hopefully by early next week whether or not it’s feasible to recover it,” he said. “We’ll know whether the plane is stuck in mud, whether it’s crumbling and not feasible. But I don’t expect that. It was a controlled crash, and the sonar readings we have show that it’s intact. But if it’s buried in mud and can’t be removed, it may not be feasible. We certainly want the airplane, but sometimes a line in the sand can’t justify it.”
One thing is certain: Thursday will be busy at Lower Otay.
And to think it’s all because bass fisherman Duane Johnson, fishing with Curtis Howard, turned on his Humminbird fish finder one morning last February before reaching the other side of the lake. Johnson captured the image of the Helldiver on his computerized device and showed it to reservoir keeper Bryan Norris.
San Diego’s diver-rangers inspected the plane, and then the Navy became involved.
“We’re ready to go, with all the dive teams set” for the Thursday assessment, said Nelson Manville, the San Diego lakes assistant program manager in charge of the city’s dive unit.
At 9 a.m., city ranger-diver Patrick Walter will accompany a diver from A&T Recovery, a Chicago-based company that has recovered 40 World War II planes from Lake Michigan. Manville said the dive will last about 30 minutes as the A&T Recovery diver takes video footage of the wreckage.
Then Navy divers will descend at 11 a.m. The Navy is using the situation as an exercise for its divers, and it intends to use its sonar to develop a grid of the wreckage site.
At 1 p.m., another city ranger-diver will support a second dive by A&T Recovery.
“One of the things we’re going to be checking is the turbidity of the water after the dives,” Manville said. “We need to know how quickly things settle down there and what kind of visibility there will be after it’s stirred up.”
Thurday’s operation will cost San Diego’s water ratepayers and taxpayers, but the exact dollar figure wasn’t available from the city or Navy. A Navy spokeswoman hoped to have the amount by today.
Rasmussen – of the National Naval Aviation Museum – said he and his restoration team are government employees, but that much of the money for salvaging and fixing up the Helldiver would come from private donors.
Besides the issue of how much taxpayer money will be spent, the Navy faces questions as to why this aircraft needs to be recovered after spending 64 years in Lower Otay.
“Planes were going down every day back then,” Rasmussen said. “For the Navy to go and recover a plane like that, to try and restore it back to flying conditions, would have cost more than building a new one. It was a rare day when the Navy or any other service dredged a body of water for a plane back then. Unless they were recovering remains or trying to determine the cause of the crash, it just wasn’t done.”
Even though a decision on recovering the plane will likely come soon, the actual salvaging probably won’t happen for months as A&T Recovery secures permits.
“We’re looking at months of jumping through hurdles,” Rasmussen said. “But once the recovery process starts, it shouldn’t take more than a week.”
The SB2C-4 is 49 feet, 9 inches across at its wingspan; 36 feet, 8 inches long; and 13 feet, 2 inches high. When empty, the craft weighs more than five tons, or 10,547 pounds.
Meanwhile, efforts to locate Joseph M. Metz – the Army gunner aboard the Helldiver that Frazar guided into Lower Otay Reservoir – have been unsuccessful.
Frazar’s eldest child, Richard, said his father died of a heart attack in 1979 at age 56.