Lake Michigan doesn't connect to any ocean. And it sits in the middle of North America.
Between 1912 and 1941, more upwardly-mobile citizens could enjoy overnight splendor aboard the luxury paddle-wheel steamer, SS Seeandbee, on trips between Buffalo and Cleveland.
In 1941, the Great Buffalo, a Lake Eerie paddle-wheel liner that had once boasted of luxury staterooms, an onboard movie theatre and even its own radio station, now sat idle thanks to the Great Depression.
What these facts have in common was unbeknownst to me.
When tour guides at Pensacola's National Naval Aviation Museum spoke of several WWII-era aircraft that had been restored after being recovered from the bottom of Lake Michigan, curiosity awoke. It seemed an odd place for any naval aircraft to be.
After the December, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbour the navy desperately needed more training facilities for its aviators. The calm waters of Lake Michigan and the size and availability of both the SS Seeandbee (re-christened the USS Wolverine) and Great Buffalo (re-christened USS Sable), melded into the perfect solution.
Between 1943 and the end of WWII, both sudo-carriers, safe from Japanese and German submarines, saw 120,000 successful landings, qualifying 17,800 pilots for aircraft carrier operations, including former President George H.W. Bush. There were 128 aircraft lost and over 200 accidents during training.
Seeing some of these lake-rescued, perfectly restored aircraft was a sobering experience, helping to bring history to life.
The museum itself is 350,000 square feet of exhibit space sitting on 37-acres and is one of the largest aviation museums in the world. The fact that daily tours are guided by retired aviators, many with combat experience, helped give life to the aircraft and their stories.
Over 150 historic aircraft fill every nook and cranny of the museum, some flying overhead in unison with Blue Angels written on their wings and even more sitting wing-to-wing, waiting for their stories to be told by those who know the words by heart, from the heart.
Even the most unassuming aircraft can have the most interesting story. Do you remember the plane that Snoopy flew when chasing the Red Baron (pictured above)? That was a Sopwith Camel. The British single-seat biplane fighter played an important part during WWI. Among the U.S. Naval Aviators who flew the fighter in combat was Lieutenant Junior Grade David S. Ingalls. He became the Navy's only fighter ace of the Great War, scoring six kills, some of the 1,294 enemy aircraft downed by Camels during 1917 and 1918.
To keep the Rotary engines lubricated, castor oil was used. Unfortunately, the spray from the oil blew back at the pilots, causing them to breath in and swallow good amounts of it during flight. And one big drawback of consuming large quantities of castor oil? Diarrhea. So using a scarf that was long enough to wrap around one's neck helped it not fly away in the open cockpits of the day, and made it easier for the pilots to cover their nose and mouth to avoid inhaling the oil spray, and to wipe their goggles that were more often than not covered in it. Who knew!?
These are just a few of the fascinating facts we gleaned while visiting the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, and it took us three trips to do it. Even that wasn't enough. We owe so much to these early aviators and their successors, so taking the time to learn even just a little about some of their stories was an honor.
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