New partnership between the National Naval Aviation Museum, National Medal of Honor Museum and the Air Zoo brings historic aircraft to life for new museum

A special project that began 10 years ago, when an FM-2 Wildcat fighter plane was recovered from its 68-year slumber on the bottom of Lake Michigan, has recently taken an exciting turn as the Air Zoo Restoration Team pushes ahead for a spring 2024 completion. Conversations that began in late 2021 have led three organizations to a completion plan that is a victory for all.     

Through the efforts of the National Naval Aviation Museum (NNAM) in Pensacola, Florida, and the Air Zoo Aerospace & Science Center in Kalamazoo, Michigan, a WWII FM-2 Wildcat will be beautifully restored by the Air Zoo’s nationally recognized restoration team and provided on long-term loan to the National Medal of Honor Museum (NMOHM), scheduled to open in Arlington, Texas, in the fall of 2024, for permanent display in its galleries.  This Navy fighter plane, restored to a 1942 condition, will be a centerpiece in the new museum’s Above & Beyond: Naval and Aviation Gallery.   

Naval Aviation Museum Foundation, President & CEO, Rear Admiral Kyle Cozad, USN (Ret) states “Having this WWII vintage Wildcat on display in the National Medal of Honor Museum is vital for the American public.  Not only does this aircraft help to tell about the heritage and contributions of Naval Aviation on a strategic level – it also helps tell more specific stories of incredible heroism with numerous Medal of Honor recipients during the WWII campaign. Our collective ability to tell these stories wouldn’t be possible without the amazing artisanship of the Wildcat restoration team at the Kalamazoo Air Zoo. This demonstration of committed partnership is key to making this new exhibit a reality in 2024 for the National Medal of Honor Museum.”

Eight different WWII pilots earned the Medal of Honor while flying the Wildcat.  No other single-engine, fixed-wing aircraft has more Medal of Honor actions associated with it than the Wildcat fighter.  The courage and sacrifice found within Medal of Honor pilots Henry Elrod, Butch O’Hare, Joe Bauer, Jefferson DeBlanc, Joe Foss, Bob Galer, John Smith, and James Swett will be further highlighted by having a version of their airplane on display within the National Medal of Honor Museum’s gallery.  

Chris Cassidy, the CEO for the National Medal of Honor Museum states, “Through this partnership with the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation and the Air Zoo, the National Medal of Honor Museum is honored to be the future home of this remarkable fighter plane.  This wildcat will have pride of place in our future exhibits and its presence will allow us to more powerfully share the inspiring stories of the Medal of Honor pilots who flew this plane during some of the most challenging moments of World War II.”   

The FM-2 Wildcat, Bureau Number 57039, has a remarkable story unto itself.  This Wildcat was used in training Naval aviators in the Great Lakes region. During a training flight, piloted by Ensign William E. Forbes on December 18, 1944, this Wildcat skidded from the deck of the USS Sable, and was cut in two as the fuselage was struck by one of the ship’s paddle wheels. It then sank 200 feet to the bottom of Lake Michigan where it rested until retrieved on December 7, 2012 by A and T Recovery on behalf of the National Museum of Naval Aviation and the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation. The aircraft was relocated to the restoration facilities at the Air Zoo – one of the preeminent aircraft restoration facilities in the country, on August 5, 2013.  

“Through the dedication and immeasurable skill of our aircraft restoration team, life is being restored to this amazing Wildcat, and the stories of eight heroic Medal of Honor recipients told in a unique and immersive way, for generations to come. Our team is grateful to play such an important part in this project and we are honored to be part of this exciting time for the National Medal of Honor Museum” states Troy Thrash, President and CEO of the Air Zoo.   

The Air Zoo’s Restoration Department is incredibly unique in that the program is found on the exhibit floor at the Flight Discovery Center located at 3101 E. Milham Rd. in Portage, Michigan. During the restoration, the public can stop by and see the work being done on this historic plane.  

Once the aircraft is fully restored in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the Wildcat will be transported to the National Medal of Honor Museum in Arlington, Texas, where it will be placed on permanent display.  The National Medal of Honor Museum is slated to open its doors to the public in late 2024.

 

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