As a World War II-era fighter plane was gingerly lifted out of Lake Michigan on Monday morning, the crowd gathered at Waukegan Harbor marveled at the aircraft's condition.
Although under water since a 1943 training crash, the F4U-1 Corsair was remarkably complete. The tail section had broken away, but the remaining fuselage was in one piece. The distinctive bent wings still held some of their color, the propeller remained attached to the nose, and the gauges and pedals in the single-seat cockpit were intact.
Even the landing gear was whole, although the tires upon which the plane once rested had long since disappeared.
"This plane is beautiful," said Taras Lyssenko, whose Florida-based firm A&T Recovery led the effort. "It's absolutely beautiful."
The Corsair was the latest wartime plane to be pulled from Lake Michigan for restoration. It wound up in the water, along with so many other aircraft, because the Navy flew training missions over the lake during the war from the Glenview Naval Air Station.
About 80 planes remain in the lake from that era, Lyssenko said.
This particular airplane went down on June 12, 1943, when its pilot, Ensign Carl H. Johnson, unsuccessfully tried to land on the USS Wolverine, a steamship that had been converted into an aircraft carrier for Navy pilots to practice takeoffs and landings.
Johnson survived the crash but died later that year during a training exercise in Hawaii, according to research by Mark Sheppard, an aviation enthusiast from Oxford, England, who came to Waukegan to witness the Corsair's recovery.
"It's fascinating, really," Sheppard said when asked why he traveled across the Atlantic for the event.
Formerly based in Chicago, A&T Recovery has pulled more than 30 aircraft from Lake Michigan.
The Corsair was recovered thanks to civilian funding. Mettawa resident Chuck Greenhill, himself a pilot and a military veteran, put up the cash for the project.
"I saw these things and fell in love with them," Greenhill said.
Greenhill owns several World War II-era military airplanes, but this one isn't going into his collection. Still the property of the U.S. Navy, it's headed for the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Fla., where it will be restored.
After it crashed, the Corsair came to rest in 240 feet of water, about 10 miles from shore, Greenhill said. Ahead of Monday's event, workers brought the aircraft to the surface with air bags and towed it to Larsen Marine, where the recovery took place.
Using a large crane, divers and other manpower, workers took about one hour to raise the 8,000-pound Corsair out of the water and onto a waiting blue tarp. Crews had to stop every few feet to let water drain out of the airplane, a maneuver that reduced its weight.
As the plane came up, the air was filled with the stench of decades-old aviation fuel. That prompted Lyssenko to warn the crowd, "No smoking!"
At one point the plane had to be put back into the water because a sharp edge cut the sling holding it.
"When that strap broke, I didn't feel too good," Lyssenko said afterward. "Now I feel pretty good."
The Corsair will be disassembled and driven by truck to the naval museum. It will take years and millions of dollars to restore the plane, Greenhill said.
But he believes it's worth the effort.
"It's a piece of history," Greenhill said. "It's an artifact. It's not something you can replace or create."
Among the onlookers Monday was U.S. Navy Petty Officer First Class Eric Oldham, who brought his wife and four children to the event.
A history buff, Oldham said he wanted to share the experience with his family.
U.S. Navy Capt. Mark Wegge, director of training and readiness for Navy Region Midwest, watched the Corsair lifted out of the water, too.
"It's a great piece of naval aviation history coming up," Wegge said. "It's a big thing for us, to see an aircraft like this coming home."