Special Segments

Special Segment: Chicago's Sunken Treasures

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Taras Lyssenko is pretty good at finding things. Over the last quarter century, he and his partners have found and recovered more than three dozen World War II fighter planes from the depths of Lake Michigan.

The warbirds - over 120 in all - wound up on the bottom because some of the practice takeoffs and landings on makeshift carriers back then didn't always go as planned.

Many of the planes that have since been lifted from their watery graves have been restored and are now on public display in museums or - in the case of a SPD Dauntless - Midway airport.

"Pulling these planes out of the water really provides people with the actual artifact so they can actually study the thing that the books refer to," said Ken Clarke, Pritzker Military Library president.

Another Dauntless in 100 feet of water is the very next one slated to be lifted from the Lake.

But you don't just pull a plane out of the water without first receiving government approval, and that includes the Illinois historic preservation agency. IHPA's preference has always been that as historical artifacts the planes should be left where they are. Still, it has allowed the previous recoveries saying each offered educational value and that bringing them topside would not have an adverse impact.

But five years ago, Illinois and the other Great Lake states decided they needed a uniform approach to salvaging the Navy planes and concluded that, just like raising a sunken ship, recovering a plane may have an adverse impact.

"There aren't any adverse impacts! It's beneficial for the United States of America. Airplanes do not belong on the bottom of lakes," said Lyssenko.

Lyssenko is steamed by what he calls horrid bureaucracy. The language from the interstate agreement triggers the need for an environmental study even though its questions, Lysenko contends, have been asked and answered with Corp of Engineers permits over the past 25 years.

"The American taxpayer paid a bunch of money for a redundant study to be done by the Navy that I know full well comes up there's no adverse impacts," said Lyssenko.

"We have to weigh the benefits of bringing these planes to the surface with the potential damage that may occur during the process of bringing them to the surface," said David Blanchette, Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

The IHPA's mission is to protect history and its artifacts- even if they're resting at the bottom of the lake. Is salvaging a plane worth the risk of it breaking apart? Is not trying acceptable when the history remains where it is not seen?

"So while trying to protect the artifacts, we realize there's also an educational component to be derived by bring them up from the bottom of the lake. It's a careful balancing act and hopefully we do that well," said Blanchette.

The Navy owns the sunken planes and agrees with the case-by-case approach, but that takes time and money.

Lyssenko and some others believe this is more about red tape than balancing act. The recovery efforts he's led are all privately financed by donors and they are not fond of new rules when time and the elements are eating away at sunken treasures.

Still, the state historic preservation agency is about to give the green light to Lyssenko's latest plane recovery. But future expeditions will face the same scrutiny.

(Copyright ©2014 WLS-TV/DT. All Rights Reserved.)

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