Introduced into service in 1940, the Grumman Wildcat was the only effective fighter avalible to the United States Navy and Marine Corps in the pacific during the early part of WWII. While out performed by the Japanese Mitsubishi Zero, the Wildcat could hold its own thanks to it's armor, self-sealing fuel tanks and pilots. Lessons learnt from the Wildcat were applied to the bigger and faster F6F Hellcat. Although the Wildcat continued to be built and served on escort and training carriers.
On December 28, 1944, a brisk 15-degree Michigan day, the FM-2 Wildcat fighter plane currently under restoration in the Air Zoo’s Restoration Center crashed into the icy waters of Lake Michigan. This Wildcat, Bureau Number 57039 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.
On loan from the Naval Aviation History Museum in Pensacola, Florida, the FM-2 Wildcat arrived at the Air Zoo’s Restoration Center in August 2013 because of the unique, hands-on approach the Air Zoo takes to aircraft restoration. 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, he public can stop by and see the work being done on this historic plane.
The Wildcat restoration is more than just a restoration, it’s a community education project. Since the project began thousands of people from across the community have been able to take part in the restoration effort. By offering the opportunity for guests to help sand, clean and ‘turn a wrench’, the FM-2 Wildcat restoration has kept the community engaged for the last nine years.