Tuskegee Airmen blazed the trail for black pilots

The movie “Red Tails,” the George Lucas-financed film about the triumphs of the Tuskegee Airmen, America’s first black fighter pilots, again calls attention to how black people in this country overcame racism and segregation to show they were competent and qualified to fly airplanes.

Black military personnel who fought in World War II will tell you that, in most cases, they were restricted to labor battalions and other support positions.

My father was in the Navy, and the closest he got to combat was loading ships leaving out of Williamsburg, Va.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the Army Air Corps to form an all-black flying unit in 1940.

According to the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force in Dayton, the so-called “Tuskegee Experiment” eventually would show that given equal opportunity and training, blacks could fly in, command and support combat units as well as anyone.

The history of the airmen is provided on the website www.tuskegeeairmen.org.

The term “Tuskegee Airmen” refers to all the people involved in the Tuskegee Experiment, which trained blacks not only as pilots but also as navigators, bombardiers, maintenance and support staff, instructors and all other personnel who kept the planes in the air.

The military selected the Tuskegee Institute in central Alabama because it had the facilities and engineering and technical instructors already in place, and the climate was good for year-round flying, according to the Tuskegee website.

In spring 1941, the first black enlisted men began training to become mechanics, and the first 13 candidates entered pilot training.

On March 7, 1942, the first contingent of young black pilots was inducted into the Army Air Corps on Tuskegee’s airstrip at Moton Field.

There actually were four all-black squadrons. The 99th Fighter Squadron was the first. It was joined with three others — the 100th, 301st and the 302nd — to form the 332nd Fighter Group.

The 332nd Fighter Group, known as “The Red Tails,” under the command of black Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., was stationed in Italy. The pilots escorted bombers to and from targets and is the basis for the movie. Davis eventually would become the first black Air Force general.

The group decorated its P-47 Thunderbolt and P-51 Mustang aircraft with bright red spinners and tails, hence the name “Red Tails.”

According to the USAF national museum, the 332nd flew 179 bomber- escort missions from June 1944 through the end of the war.

On one occasion, the black pilots shot down 13 German fighters. “On one mission, Davis’ 39 aircraft attacked more than 100 German fighters, shooting down five” and earned Davis the Distinguished Flying Cross for bravery and leadership, according to Air Force museum archives.

The Tuskegee website says 996 pilots were trained in Alabama from 1941 to 1946. More than 400 were deployed overseas, and 150 airmen lost their lives in accidents or combat.

Here are some of their military records for valor and performance, according to Air Force documents:

At least one Silver Star.

An estimated 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses.

14 Bronze Stars.

744 Air Medals.

Eight Purple Hearts.

Of the more than 900 black pilots trained at Tuskegee, only about 100 remain alive today.

And, of those black pilots who survived the war and proved they could fly aircraft well, none was deemed qualified to be a pilot for the nation’s major passenger airlines after the war.

More than six decades after World War II, there still aren’t many black pilots flying for passenger airlines and freight carriers.

By way of a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court case, Marlon Green broke the color barrier when the court ruled airlines could not discriminate in their hiring. It was a six-year battle. He became the first black pilot hired by the Continental airline in 1965, according to a story in the Denver Post when Green died in Colorado in 2009.

Green’s efforts made it possible for David Harris to become the first black pilot to fly for a major airline — American Airlines — in 1964.

According to the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, in 1976 there were about 80 black pilots. That number rose to nearly 400 by 1986, and today the estimate is 674, including 14 black women.

The organization points out, however, that there are more than 71,000 pilots working for the major airlines and freight carriers.

As you can see, the struggle continues. The OBAP focuses its efforts on preparing black youths to realize a “successful future and highlight the exciting potential available in aviation,” its website says.

Young people, check out the website at www.obap.org for more information.

Ernie Brown Jr., a regional editor at The Vindicator, writes a monthly column. Contact him at ebrown@vindy.com.

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