Legends aren’t born overnight. Sometimes they take a good day or two.
Perhaps you’ve heard about a World War II airplane resting on the bottom of Nimisila Reservoir in Green. The story has been handed down for generations around the Portage Lakes, and some people swear it is true. According to local folklore, passing pilots have observed the craft’s ghostly outline in placid water and scuba divers have found the rusting hulk buried in muck.
Today, we’re looking beneath the surface to get to the bottom of the legend.
With a certain degree of surprise, we confirm that the general story is indeed true — or, rather, it used to be true, if only briefly.
The reservoir was dotted with bobbing boats Wednesday, July 28, 1943, as fishermen reeled in bluegill, perch and bass on a mild, sunny morning. Somewhere high above, a high-pitched roar interrupted the serenity.
Test pilot Paul Van Keuren, 32, was making a routine flight in a Corsair FG-1 fighter, a gull-winged airplane that could zoom at speeds of more than 300 mph and soar to an altitude of 33,150 feet. Goodyear Aircraft Corp. built thousands of them in Akron for the U.S. military during World War II and they performed admirably in the South Pacific.
Van Keuren’s flight had gone well until he descended toward Akron Municipal Airport. The landing gear got stuck and a wheel failed to come down. The pilot pulled up and prepared to circle for a second attempt at landing. That’s when the engine failed.
“You don’t have time to make decisions at a time like that,” Van Keuren later told the Beacon Journal. “You just do your thinking afterwards. I didn’t have time to be scared. In fact, I wasn’t particularly scared.”
He radioed the control room, pointed the airplane toward the reservoir and leaped to safety in a parachute. Fishermen were shocked as the Corsair fell from the noontime sky and slammed into the water about 300 feet offshore. A nylon parachute slowly trailed it down. The pilot hadn’t picked out a good spot to land. In fact, it wasn’t land at all.
“I’m a pretty good swimmer and when I landed in the water I unbuckled my chute and swam about 100 yards to the nearest shore,” Van Keuren recalled. “My arm was burned on the shroud lines as I parachuted down, but that was my only injury.”
Fisherman Steve Fakso guided his boat next to the pilot, pulled him out of the water and took him the rest of the way to shore.
Goodyear Aircraft officials arrived at the scene moments later and were relieved to see that the pilot had survived the plunge. Only a week earlier, test pilot Perry Lloyd had been killed when his Corsair caught fire and crashed into the Goodyear synthetic tire plant on Seiberling Avenue in East Akron.
Summit County sheriff’s deputies, Akron police and state troopers kept spectators from getting too close to the reservoir. It was wartime, after all, and the airplane’s equipment was top secret.
An oil slick marked the spot where the Corsair crashed in about 18 feet of water.
After years of flying, it was the first time that Van Keuren ever bailed out of an airplane. He had made several forced landings, but this experience was something else.
“It’s just like stepping out into a heavy rain,” he said. “You don’t like to do it, but you know you have to get some place, so you do it anyway. It’s just one of those things.”
Test piloting was a good job and no more hazardous than a lot of other jobs, he insisted. Van Keuren said he would fly again the next day without any hesitation.
After he dried off, he called his wife, Leona, at their home in Columbus and broke the news to her gently.
“I got my feet a little wet,” he told her.
“You don’t mean you had to bail out?” she asked incredulously.
Back at Nimisila Reservoir, a salvage crew used a raft made with oil drums and planks to retrieve the Corsair. A winch attached to a tripod lifted the wreckage to the surface. It wasn’t easy, because the impact of the crash had smashed the airplane into pieces. The mangled cockpit, broken fuselage, twisted propeller, dented engine and severed wings were hauled back to Goodyear Aircraft for a full naval investigation.
Although salvage operations were completed July 30, a lot of people must not have heard that the Corsair was recovered. The lost-airplane story rippled out like a rock tossed into a pond. While it’s possible that tiny fragments could have been overlooked during the salvage operation, some people erroneously believe that the entire airplane is still submerged 70 years later.
The Corsair rested on the bottom of Nimisila Reservoir for only two days. That was just enough time for a lasting legend to take off.
Copy editor Mark J. Price is author of The Rest Is History: True Tales From Akron’s Vibrant Past, a book from the University of Akron Press. He can be reached at 330-996-3850 or firstname.lastname@example.org.