The following is an article excerpt from the Spring 2020 Issue of American Archaeology Magazine. Become a member to subscribe and read the full story!
By David Malakoff
“It was the most horrible thing I have ever witnessed,” Leah Droullard recalled. On a cloudy day in April 1944, Droullard watched from her home in Port Huron, Michigan, as four P-39 Aircobra fighter planes skimmed low over Lake Huron and spattered the water with machine gun fire. It was a routine gunnery exercise for military pilots stationed at a nearby airfield who were preparing for the battlefields of World War II. “Then everything happened so fast it seemed unbelievable,” Droullard told the Times Herald, a local newspaper. One of the single-propeller fighters began streaming smoke as the pilot fought to gain altitude. Then it cart-wheeled into the water. “I saw a big splash,” Droullard said, “then the plane went out of sight.”
Archaeologists with the National Park Service examine part of a B-29 bomber that crashed in Lake Mead in 1948.
Archaeologist Hunter Whitehead documented this U.S. Navy F8F Bearcat that crashed off the coast of Pensacola, Florida in the early 1950s. | Credit: Hunter Whitehead
Wayne Lusardi documents the portside wing tip of pilot Frank Moody’s P-39 Aircobra. The plane crashed in Lake Huron during a training flight in 1944. | Credit: Eric Denson
Students from West Michigan Aviation Academy assist volunteers in restoring the remains of a plane at the Kalamazoo Aviation History Museum. The plane is a World War II-era bomber that was recovered from Lake Michigan by A&T Recovery. | Credit: Kalamazoo Aviation History Museum
The body of the pilot, twenty-two-year-old Second Lieutenant Frank Moody, a member of the pathbreaking Tuskegee Airmen, the first black pilots in the U.S. military, later washed ashore. But his plane disappeared. Nearly six years ago, however, divers inspecting a sunken barge noticed the plane’s wings and door on the lakebed nearly 100 feet down. The discovery came on April 11, 2014—exactly seventy years to the day of the crash.
Frank Moody’s Aircobra has become the centerpiece of a multi-year archaeological project that is documenting, recovering, and conserving the remains of the P-39, which is one of just a handful of remaining aircraft known to have been flown by a Tuskegee pilot. “It’s a remarkable opportunity to preserve an important part of our heritage,” said Wayne Lusardi, an archaeologist with the State of Michigan who is leading the effort. The project is an example of the emerging field of aviation archaeology, which focuses on documenting historic aircraft wrecks and airfields as well as understanding how the invention of powered flight reshaped entire landscapes. “It’s fair to say that the whole concept of aviation archaeology is taking off,” said Megan Lickliter-Mundon, an underwater archaeologist who has helped document some of the oldest known aircraft remains in the United States.