Dauntless Dedication to Air Zoo Aircraft Reincarnation

By Scott Spangler on December 13th, 2021

Air Zoo Aerospace & Science Experience CEO Troy Thrash said the Douglas SBD-3 Dauntless on display in the World War II exhibit was the team’s first Lake Michigan restoration project. The eight-year effort took place years ago in a building in a restricted area of the airport, “so no one had access to see it being restored.” Since then, all of the Air Zoo’s restoration work has been on display in the Flight Discovery Center.

The Center “is the Air Zoo’s original building that opened in 1979,” said Thrash. On weekends, an electric shuttle conveys visitors from the Flight Innovation Center, and the Discovery Center’s observation lounge is a popular place for watching airplanes come and go from the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek International Airport.

In the foyer is the battle-damaged cowl of a Michigan Air National Guard A-10 Warthog whose Middle East wounds reveal the honeycomb structure that protects the powerplant it streamlines. Farther on, visitors can try on an F-16 and F-102 cockpit procedure trainers for size. But the restoration shop occupies much of the facilities space where volunteers tend to their restoration contribution, usually within earshot and arm’s reach of Air Zoo visitors.

When the Air Zoo resumed its restoration work with it’s FM-2 Wildcat proposal, inviting school kids and others to work side-by-side with the volunteers was part of the plan. “We want to make this a real community project. The Navy may say this won’t fly, but we need to create this experience.” Since then, “busloads of high school kids have come through and worked on the airplanes,” said Deputy Restoration Manager Dan Brant. “Mostly they do disassembly, Scotchbrite metal to get it ready for paint, anything they can do easily with little chance of damaging anything. Not damaging an original part is the primary concern.”

Not long after the Air Zoo started work on the FM-2 Wildcat, retired Rear Admiral Samuel Cox visited. He is the director of the Naval History and Heritage Command and “Curator of the Navy,” responsible for the Navy’s museums, its collections of art and artifacts (like the FM-2), and the research library and its 150 million pages of information. “He wanted to see our model, especially how we involved kids and the community,” Thrash said. “It was really cool because he felt others restoring Navy assets need to do the same thing. And, he said, ‘Oh, by the way, do you want another airplane?’ That’s when the Dauntless SBD-2P came.”

The last of its kind, Douglas Aircraft built only 14 photo-reconnaissance Dauntless SBD-2Ps. It joined the fleet in 1941, flying with Scouting Squadron (VS) 6 aboard the USS Enterprise (CV-6). After repairing landing accident damage, it joined the aircraft pool at Pearl Harbor shortly after its Day of Infamy. It went on to fight in the Battle of the Coral Sea with Bombing Squadron (VB) 5.

When it was replaced by a newer model, the Dauntless -2P went to NAS Glenview, where it was a training mount for new aviators undergoing carrier qualification in Lake Michigan. The training carriers, converted paddle-wheelers, the USS Wolverine and USS Sable tied up every night at Chicago’s Navy Pier.

After nine months of accident-free flying, on February 18, 1944, the SBD’s engine lost power on final approach to the Wolverine. Lieutenant (junior grade) John Lendo survived his lake landing, but the Dautless didn’t. Lieutenant Lendo died 10 months later during a combat mission over the Philippines. A and T Recovery recovered the -2P from Lake Michigan on June 19, 2009, and it arrived at the Air Zoo restoration center in July 2016.

Lt. John Lendo

Several weeks after the airplane arrived, Thrash received a call from Dr. Arthur Lendo. “The last name rang a bell because Lieutenant John Lendo was the last person to fly this airplane. Dr. Lendo was his nephew, and he’s been very (personally and financially) supportive of our work, and he and his family were here when the airplane was all together.”

“Neither my brother or I ever had the privilege of knowing my Uncle John,” said Art Lendo, who now lives in Tennessee. “Like so many Americans of my baby-boomer generation, I was named after family members who served so heroically in World War Two.”

Arthur Lendo said his father never spoke of his uncle’s death because it was too painful. “My being able to sit in the cockpit of the Dauntless Bomber that Lieutenant John Lendo crash-landed into Lake Michigan was an amazing experience for me,” said Kevin Lendo. “He was the war hero uncle I never got to meet.”

The Air Zoo’s restores airplanes to historic standards, right down to matching the paint, a process made easier in 2016 with the installation of a $90,000 dedicated paint booth. It creates the perfect dust free environment for applying and curing the coatings, usually a three-part enamel. The hard part is recreating the nonspecular colors the Navy used in its various camouflage paint schemes, Ward said.

Running his fingers lightly across the velvet-like wing skin of the SBD-2P, Ward explained that “nonspecular” is the technical term for something that does not reflect light. At this point in World War II, the Dauntless wore nonspecular blue over nonspecular gray. Several modern manufacturers translated the colors’ Military Specification into modern recipes for today’s paint systems.

“The manufacturer told us to add a certain amount of flattener to the paint, but it was still too shiny,” Ward said. “So, I called the company, said I’d painted the whole thing, and it’s too shiny. Well, they said, that’s all the flattener you can add. So, I cut out a bunch of aluminum panels, primed them, and then painted them, adding another ounce of flattener for each one.”

From the manufacturer, 16 ounces of paint is a 50/50 mixture of paint and flattener, with the painter adding 2 ounces of hardener to the mixture before application. To get the right nonspecular reflectivity of the blue and gray Ward’s test panels called for another 6 ounces of flattener. “On the first SBD we did this wasn’t a problem because a different manufacturer made the paint, but it went out of business, so we switched to a new vendor. We ignored the rules, ignored the manufacturer, to get the sheen we wanted.”

The Air Zoo’s restoration team are the first people to get hands-on with the airplanes after their last flights. Unfolding their mysteries is part of the work that infuses the tangible with the spirit of the people who gave them life.

When it came out of Lake Michigan, they at first couldn’t explain why the SBD-2P’s left wing had zero corrosion and the right one was totally corroded. Also, Ward said, the right-wing tank was lined with self-sealing rubber and the left one was just aluminum. It turns out that the corroded wing with the self-sealing fuel tank was for an A-24, the Army’s SBD.

“When the -2P back to San Diego for repairs,” Ward said, “They pulled a new right wing out of stock, and it was an Army wing.” Unlike Navy wings that lived in a corrosive maritime environment, “none of the aluminum in the it was anodized.” The aircraft’s records say that carburetor ice killed the engine on its last approach. “When we got into the cockpit after they pulled it out of the lake, we found the carb heat knob wasn’t pulled out,” which applies the heat.

The Air Zoo’s first Dauntless restoration, the SBD-3 on display in the World War II exhibit area, lost power right after it took off from the carrier and ended up in the lake, Ward said. The plane guard rescued the pilot and the accident investigation suspected that fuel starvation was the cause. “When the airplane rolled into the Air Zoo 50 years later, I looked in the cockpit, and the fuel selector was on the empty tank. We didn’t know it was empty until we went to drain the fuel out of it, and there wasn’t any. The other tank had 45 gallons of fuel in it.”

Unlike their other restoration efforts, the team faced a hard deadline on the SBD-2P if the airplane was to be center stage in Hawaii on December 7, 2021. They made it. With the restoration complete, the Air Zoo completed its reincarnation with a celebration that included a reunion of the pilot’s surviving family members and their descendants, the Lendo family. After the party, the restorers disassembled the SBD and carefully prepared it for a journey to the Pearl Harbor Aviation Museum on Ford Island on the 80th anniversary of the that Day of Infamy.

Taking its place in the Air Zoo restoration exhibit is another of the 38 Dauntless dive bombers that ended up at the bottom of Lake Michigan. An SBD-1, it began its service with the US Marine Corps on September 16, 1940, reported to NAS Glenview for carrier training duty in late 1941 or early 1942, and crash landed in Lake Michigan on November 23, 1942, claiming the life of its pilot, Ensign Herbert Wilton McMinn. On its way to the Air Zoo from MCAS Miramar, it was on display in the Warbirds area at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2021.

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One Response to “Dauntless Dedication to Air Zoo Aircraft Reincarnation”

  1. Dauntless Dedication to Air Zoo Aircraft Reincarnation - Jetwhine.com Says:

    Cube Toronto

    The Air Zoo has restored three of the 39 Dauntless dive bombers recovered from Lake Michigan, including one that

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