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Trio of Tuskegee Airmen Recounts Trials and Triumphs

October 31, 2012

It’s not often that civilians get an opportunity to express, face-to-face, their gratitude to those who defend the country. However, NBAA2012 Attendees got that opportunity on Oct. 31, as the Association presented its 2012 Meritorious Service to Aviation Award to the Tuskegee Airmen, the elite group of World War II African-American fighter pilots.

Hearing just a few of the tales told by the three Tuskegee Airmen who were on hand to receive NBAA’s highest award, it’s hard not to admire the fortitude of these pioneering aviators, who battled racism as well as the Axis powers. For example, the audience at the awards ceremony audibly gasped when Lt. Col. Alexander Jefferson, who was shot down over Europe and spent nine months in a German prison camp, told how he endured a racial epithet as he walked down the gangplank of the ship that returned him home to America following his liberation.

Jefferson contrasted this homecoming experience with his time as a prisoner of war, saying that his German captors treated him like an officer and a gentleman. He was not subject to any beatings or torture and he believes he was treated better during his incarceration than he would have been in the South at that time.

Another Tuskegee Airman, Col. Leo R. Gray, who spent more than 40 years in the military, noted that the only difference between the training black pilots and white pilots received during World War II was the racism to which the African Americans were subjected. Although public recognition came too late for some of the 356 “Red Tail” pilots who compiled an enviable record of protecting U.S. bombers during more than 300 missions, Gray said he was “thrilled and humbled” when 50 surviving airmen received the Congressional Gold Medal in Washington, DC in 2006.

The third Tuskegee Airman at the NBAA awards ceremony, Col. Charles McGhee, shared some sage advice, which he likes to pass on to young people. He said they should remember the four P’s: Perceive (figure out what you want to do), Prepare (take advantage of educational opportunities), Perform (let excellence be your goal) and Persevere (don’t let circumstance be an excuse).

The awards presentation also included a panel discussion moderated by champion aerobatic pilot Sean Tucker. The three African American panelists – Lloyd “Fig” Newton, a retired U.S. Air Force general, Thunderbird demonstration pilot and NBAA Board member; Barrington Irving, the youngest man and first African American to fly around the world; and Elijah Kelley, who portrayed a Tuskegee Airman in the film Red Tails – told Attendees how the Tuskegee Airmen inspired them.

Newton said the airmen “played a tremendous role in my life. They gave me hope that the impossible was possible. They created an environment where we all can have dreams.”

Kelley said the airmen are “true knights in shining armor that shattered the myth of the inferiority of African American pilots.”

Additionally, Irving noted that early in his aviation career he joined the Miami chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen and feels an obligation to continue to tell their story.

Following the presentation of the Meritorious Service to Aviation Award, NBAA2012's second-day general session also included a keynote by Rep. Sam Graves (R-6-MO), co-chair of the House General Aviation Caucus, and a presentation by famed political couple James Carville and Mary Matalin, returning to the NBAA Convention just prior to next week's election.

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NBAA to Honor Contributions of the Tuskegee Airmen at 2012 Convention