Pilots, divers recover old plane from lake

Risky operation finds pilot's coat, tackle box and coffee thermos

Posted: Wednesday, July 29, 2009

ANCHORAGE - There was nothing particularly historic or valuable about the two-seat float plane that had been sitting in muck at the bottom of an isolated Alaska lake since September 1993.

Pilot Mike Legler, who survived nine days in the wilderness after the crash, had returned to the unnamed lake three times trying to find the remnants. The last time, he picked some wildflowers and tossed them into the water.

"I said my good-byes to it," Legler said.

But this month, a group of pilots and divers conducted a risky salvage operation to recover the plane from the lake east of Seward - just to prove they could do it.

"For the adventure. For the fun of it. For the challenge," Steve Lloyd, an Anchorage diver who helped organize the expedition, told The Anchorage Daily News.

Lloyd had met Legler in 2001 when the two were being interviewed separately for a BBC television program. Lloyd had just written a book about the Farallon, a ship that grounded on a reef outside Iliamna Bay in the winter of 1910.

Legler told Lloyd about his unsuccessful effort to locate the sunken plane.

As a diver, Lloyd has found big shipwrecks in Alaska, such as the Torrent, a historic sailing vessel that struck a reef and sank near Port Graham in 1868.

Perhaps he could find Legler's plane.

Lloyd got two acquaintances to help, pilots Kevin McGregor and Marc Millican. They had discovered the wreckage of Northwest Airlines Flight 4422, which crashed into Mount Sanford in 1948 during a blinding show of northern lights.

In the summer of 2007, Lloyd and the two pilots attempted to find the wreckage with a metal-detecting magnetometer. But the Taylorcraft was mainly wood, fabric and aluminum. They returned last summer with a sonar machine. The grainy outline of a plane was unmistakable on the electronic display.

McGregor flew to Minnesota, where Legler now works for the Federal Aviation Administration.

Legler, who had already tossed the flowers in the water, said he no longer wanted the remnants. McGregor offered to buy the submerged plane. Sure, Legler said. How about $1? McGregor gave him $500.

For the next 10 months, Lloyd, McGregor and Millican planned the operation.

They would need a big group to carry tons of gear to the site, make the dive, lift the plane from the bottom, haul it over the rocky beach, get it on a boat to Seward, then drive it on a trailer back to Anchorage.

Lloyd put together a team of four divers, including one from New York and another from San Francisco; all had dived with him on Alaska shipwreck expeditions. There was a videographer and his assistant, who would collect images and provide muscle. And three pilots, McGregor, Millican and a backup, a friend of theirs from Spain. This bunch, plus two boat captains, comprised the core group.

Lloyd arranged for three boats - a landing craft, a Boston Whaler owned by one of the divers, plus a big research vessel with a mechanical hoist. The group also had a six-wheeler, Zodiac inflatable rafts, and two planes for aerial photos and to be on standby for any medical emergency.

They left Anchorage on July 9 and the plane was on display at Lake Hood just eight days later. The team gathered to dismantle it and strip away the fabric skin. "Like flesh," someone said. It needed to dry out as soon as possible.

The nose was crumpled, there was a hole in the fuselage and one could see the spot where Legler's head hit the instrument panel. The group found Legler's coat, his tackle box and a Thermos with coffee still in it.

The skeletal plane is now in Millican's garage in Anchorage. McGregor is looking into whether it can fly again. He thinks it would take about a year to restore the plane, if it can be done.

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