updated 3/27/2004 6:30:17 PM ET 2004-03-27T23:30:17

The federal government has filed a lawsuit against an airplane collector demanding the return of the wreckage of a World War II Corsair fighter that the Navy abandoned after it crashed in a North Carolina swamp in 1944.

Historical airplane enthusiasts say the plane Lex Cralley dug out of the swamp near the North Carolina coast is the only one of its kind known to still exist.

Cralley, an airplane mechanic with a passion for preserving World War II aviation history, salvaged the pieces of the single-engine plane in 1990, registered it as a “non-airworthy model” with the Federal Aviation Administration and began the painstaking work of restoration, which remains far from completion.

The Justice Department sued Cralley on behalf of the Navy on Wednesday, seeking the plane, the cost of returning it and compensation for any damage since Cralley recovered it.

Cralley said Friday he will defend himself, but acknowledged that the suit has rattled him.

'Just a little guy'
“I’m just a little guy,” said Cralley, 49, of Princeton, north of Minneapolis. “I have no wealth, work for a living, have four kids.”

The lawsuit doesn’t say why the plane is important to the Navy. “We’re not going to provide anything more than what we’ll be saying in court,” said Charles Miller, a spokesman for the Justice Department’s civil division in Washington.

Cralley said the government contacted him about five years ago to see about getting the plane back, and suggested an exchange with the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Fla. He declined to elaborate Saturday, citing the lawsuit.

Airplane buffs say Cralley’s plane is the only known survivor of one particular model of Corsair, a “Brewster F3A-1,” built by the Brewster Aeronautical Corp. of Long Island City, N.Y. Brewster turned out 735, compared to more than 12,000 F4U Corsairs built by the Chance Vought Aircraft Corp. of Stratford, Conn. Neither company exists today.

Unique design
Dick Phillips, a retired Northwest Airlines executive from suburban Burnsville who writes about World War II aircraft, said he knows of only about two dozen Corsairs of any model still flying. “I don’t know of any airworthy Corsair that sold in the last five years for less than $1 million,” he said.

The Corsair, designed to land on aircraft carriers, is one of the most recognizable World War II fighters, with its long fuselage, huge radial piston engine with a large propeller and a unique inverted “gull wing” design.

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