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A WWII-era plane was pulled from the depths of Lake Michigan. Now, it’s displayed in Virginia Beach

Hangar View (Military Aviation Museum/Released)

Past the Pungo stoplight, where the land is wide open and farms dominate the landscape, there’s a right turn into an airfield with a grassy runway.

This is home to Virginia Beach’s Military Aviation Museum, which features a unique, private collection of restored warbirds from the first 50 years of flight.

One of the newest additions is an iconic WWII dive bomber recovered from the bottom of Lake Michigan. A Navy pilot who was married to a Norfolk woman was training in the plane when it crashed.

The museum recently landed the antique plane — a Douglas SBD Dauntless. Dauntlesses, which would fly in a steep dive directly toward a target,are famous for delivering fatal blows to four Japanese fleet carriers during the Battle of Midway in June 1942.

“If there was a type of airplane that won the war, it was this one,” said museum Director Keegan Chetwynd.

Navy pilot Lt. Charles L. Ford III crashed The Dauntless during a training exercise in 1944. It was recovered from the water 50 years later.

Ford married Margaret Eleanor Coleman in 1943, just a few months before the accident. Like many other young Navy pilots at that time, he was training to receive his carrier qualifications on the Great Lakes. The open sea wasn’t an option because enemy submarines were on the prowl off the coast.

Ford was attempting to land the 4-month-old Dauntless on the training carrier, the USS Wolverine. According to Navy records, he was too slow on his approach and banked away from the carrier at the last second. The plane struck the water in a near vertical position on its back. Ford survived with deep cuts to his forehead.

In 1994, as part of a large operation to retrieve naval aircraft from Lake Michigan, the Dauntless was found in 177 feet of water sitting upright on the lake bottom, with its engine 80 feet away.

It’s in pretty good shape despite sitting on the bottom of a lake for 50 years, Chetwynd said. The deep, cold conditions helped preserve it. After it was recovered, the Navy used it to restore other planes.

The Dauntless first went to Pensacola, Florida, and was used to provide parts for aircraft on display in The National WWII museum and elsewhere, Chetwynd said.

Though it’s missing some parts, including the wings, many elements remain intact. A side panel was removed, and visitors can see flare tubes inside the tail of the airplane.

“It’s a bit like an archaeological dig going through the airplane,” Chetwynd said.

The original tail hook, a small box of light bulbs and the pilot’s seat belt buckle, stuck in the open position after Ford made his escape are on display. The museum has been obtaining parts to restore the Dauntless and will eventually fly it over Pungo.

Visitors can see the aircraft through the end of March before it’s restored.

What Douglas SBD Dauntless aircraft

Where Military Aviation Museum

Where 1341 Princess Anne Road, Virginia Beach

Cost $7.50-$15 for museum entry; discounts available

Info (757) 721-7767 or visit


© 2021 The Virginian-Pilot

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