In search of underwater planes

Sanctuary seeking Tuskegee Airmen wrecks

ALPENA — Justine Benanty said she wants to be able to tell a story that most people don’t know and tell it right.

Benanty is a maritime archeologist with Diving with a Purpose and The National Association for Black Scuba Divers Scientific Foundation. Those groups have partnered with the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary to help recover and preserve parts of airplane wrecks of the Tuskegee Airmen from Michigan waters.

Sanctuary Maritime Archeologist Wayne Lusardi said Tuskegee Airmen practiced off the shores of Mt. Clemens and Oscoda in the middle of World War II.

“So you have men flying back and forth over the course of two years,” Lusardi said. “Unfortunately, like many military trainings, they had accidents and, because they operate over Lake Huron where they were learning to bomb, to dog fight and find targets, occasionally the planes would end up in the lake.

“And that was this case,” Lusardi said Tuesday while looking at a piece of plane in the sanctuary lab in Alpena, “with this P-39Q.”

News Photo by Jordan Spence On Tuesday at the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Alpena, maritime archeologists Justine Benanty and Wayne Lusardi work on a wooden antenna from a P-39 flown by Tuskegee Airman Frank Moody. The plane crashed during a training exercise in Port Huron in 1944.

All of the accidents were fatal and there are two known planes in the lake and four or five out there yet to be found, he said.

On Tuesday, the particular plane the archeologists continued to work on was flown by pilot Frank Moody.

“He crashed it on the lake (in Port Huron) April 11, 1944. It was found to the day 70 years after on April 11, 2014,” Benanty said.

Lusardi said they awarded a permit to the National Museum of Tuskegee Airmen earlier this summer to recover, preserve and exhibit the aircraft. They are now preserving the antenna, drive shaft and door of the plane.

Lusardi noted the intricacies of the recovered parts.

“It was a radio mast or antenna that went through it,” he said. “It’s probably pine, based on the color of the wood and the bigger, thicker lines. It has aluminum on it, copper wiring possibly in it, and all of those have to be treated differently.”

Wood has to be treated carefully because, when it’s a living tree, it has saps and sugars to keep it alive. Those cells are filled with fluid.

“When you bring it up and dry it out, there’s nothing inside those cells anymore, so they start to collapse,” Lusardi said. “That’s why it starts to crack. What we do is chemically exchange the water in it with wax or sugar water to give the bulk so it doesn’t lose integrity.”

Underwater artifacts are much better-preserved than those found on land, Benanty said.

“Plus, it’s a freshwater lake too, so it’s really amazing,” she said. “I work in saltwater. To me, this is unbelievable to see everything intact.”

One of the hardest challenges they have right now is to remove the invasive mussels off different plane parts.

“Before you disturb anything in the lake, it has to be recorded to have the exact context and location of the individual contents, their orientation, their association is recorded,” Lusardi said. “The pieces are brought up individually. They’re kept wet until the conservation process is complete. So they aren’t drying out prematurely, which makes them deteriorate rapidly.”

The first thing to do is pre-conservation documentation, to see exactly what it looks like. Sometimes things are lost in the conservation process, like little stains indicative of something important, so you want to record that kind of thing he said.

“We have a gauge where all the needles have deteriorated on the gauges, but there are little rust stains on the gauges telling where it went down,” Lusardi said. “If you clean it, that rust is gone and you lose the information.”

Lusardi said the sanctuary has worked throughout the summer to scan the bottom of the lake to look for other airplanes that crashed. They will then take what they find (including the wreck found in Lake Huron) and add it to an exhibit at the Tuskegee Airmen National Museum in Detroit.

Benanty said she has been humbled to work on the project with the sanctuary.

“It’s going to be an amazing exhibit,” she said. “People think, ‘Why were they here at all?’ Lake Huron mimicked the French countryside, as it turns out. We hope to bring up key pieces of this wreck and hopefully next season bring up some more for conservation and display. It’s a very special project to be a part of.”

Jordan Spence can be reached at or 989-358-5687.