Warbird recovery expert Taras Lyssenko, who helped recover Lewis Air Legends’ F4F-3 Wildcat currently on display at the EAA Aviation Museum, will present about his career and experiences in the field on Thursday, October 21, at 7 p.m. as part of the EAA Aviation Museum Aviation Adventure Speaker Series.
Taras is a pilot and an aviation enthusiast, but his start in the warbird recovery business began because of his fascination for exploration.
“We’re just explorers. We like to explore, our team,” Taras said. “We just happen to be guys that when they were young, ran into each other because we all grew up together, just liked exploration. It sort of doesn’t even matter what we’re exploring for.”
Growing up in the Chicago area, Taras and his friends learned how to scuba dive and soon found themselves exploring the depths of Lake Michigan — an activity that would change the course of their lives.
“You do things that help you explore, so we all became scuba divers,” he explained. “And we learned that out in Lake Michigan there was a lot of shipwrecks. So we began at a young age looking for shipwrecks. Well, then we learned that there were World War II military aircraft out there, Navy aircraft. So, okay, let’s go explore for those, right? And learning technology, we found out we were pretty good at exploring for World War II Navy aircraft. And I think I saw my first one when I was 17 years old.”
During World War II, dozens of Navy aircraft were lost in accidents and intentional water ditchings during aircraft carrier qualification training near Chicago, most notably at the former Naval Air Station Glenview just north of the city, with many of those aircraft sitting at the bottom of Lake Michigan for decades.
Soon after discovering an aircraft for the first time, Taras and his group of friends took what was simply a hobby and turned it into a legitimate business, purchasing equipment that would allow them to recover airplanes for museums from the lake. In the mid-1980s, A and T Recovery was officially founded.
Since Taras and his partner began searching for aircraft, they’ve found around 100 in the lake and have recovered about 40 of them. In working with the National Naval Aviation Museum, Taras and his team had to search for many of the aircraft on their own, as the Navy often did not have the exact location where some of the aircraft were lost to the lake — though there was radar documentation to help with the search. When recovering an aircraft, the team will typically deploy a remotely operated vehicle to the bottom of the lake, which will attach a recovery line around the aircraft.
Taras recovered the F4F-3 currently owned by Lewis Air Legends in 1991. The aircraft was sitting in about 210 feet of water on its nose. Unable to hook the lifting assembly forward of the windscreen with the remotely operated vehicle, Taras and another diver went to the bottom of the lake themselves and hooked the aircraft by the tail tie-down. After pulling it up, Taras and his team took it back to shore and disassembled it. It would eventually be restored and sold a couple of times before its recent purchase by Lewis Air Legends. That aircraft is now on loan to the EAA Aviation Museum until next summer.
In recent years, Taras and his team have had to deal with constraints imposed on them by government bureaucracy, which has had made recovery of more warbirds difficult and much more frustrating. But seeing some of the aircraft he’s helped recover now fully restored, and in some cases flying, has made it all worth it. This past summer at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2021, Taras brought an unrestored SBD Dauntless on a trailer for display in the Warbirds area, which proved to be a draw for young and old alike.
“We brought an SBD that’s not finished with restoration. There were young children just mesmerized by it. Yeah, absolutely enthralled looking at an engine that has been under water for over 50 years and seeing a newer engine and realizing that that engine that had been under water for 50 years at one time looked like that new engine. And realizing that that aircraft had been underwater for all that time. And it was something that they could see and touch that would have been lost to time if we hadn’t done what we did.”
Thursday’s event is free for EAA members and youths 18 and under, and just $5 for nonmembers.