97-year-old Tuskegee Airman Robert Martin, left, speaks to Tom Breese about the Tuskegee fighter plane replica that Breese helped paint at Republic Frame & Axle in Gary.
GARY – A two-thirds scale replica Tuskegee Airmen fighter plane will permanently soar over Gary.
A replica of the P-51 fighter planes the pioneering African-American fighter group flew during World War II was elevated this weekend on a steel pole 35 feet into the air at Marquette Park. The plane was installed at the Gary Aquatorium, a National Historic Landmark that's often rented out for weddings because of its sweeping view of Lake Michigan.
The nonprofit Chanute Aquatorium Society, which saved the former Gary Bathhouse from demolition in the early 1990s, raised the funds for the tribute to the Tuskegee Airmen at the historic special events venue in the Miller section of Gary, which complements a bronze statue of a Tuskegee Airman there.
More than 150 people contributed to the project, Chanute Aquatorium Society President George Rogge said. A dedication will take place at 4 p.m. Sunday.
"It's kind of spectacular," he said. "It has a 24-foot-long fuselage with a 24-foot-wide wingspan and it looks like it's taking off to the east."
The plane is supported by a 7,000-pound steel pole and 6-foot-by-6-foot steel rods that go more than 20 feet deep into the ground.
"There's more money in the ground than on the plane," Rogge said. "When it's attached to the ground, the plane can't lift or dive, so we have to make sure a 100-mile wind can't rip it apart. It's rated for up to a 182-mile wind."
The new plane is one of two bookends at the Gary Aquatorium — on the other side, there's a life-size replica of the biplane hang glider that local aviation pioneer Octave Chanute flew over the sand dunes in 1896, inspiring Wilbur and Orville Wright.
The replica Tuskegee plane was made in Ohio and painted at Republic Frame & Axle in Gary, which war hero Robert Martin — a Tuskegee airman who won the Distinguished Flying Cross, an Air Medal with six Oak Leaf Clusters and the Purple Heart — visited earlier this week.
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