EAA President/CEO Rod Hightower shares a laugh with Col. Charles McGee after the Tuskegee
Airman greased a three-point landing in Rod’s Stearman.
My son and I are early out to make sure the Stearman is out of the hangar, preflighted, and looking presentable for this important flight. Our airport liaison, Dayton Shepherd, and
official Salute to Veterans photographer Don Thun are there to help
with the plane duties and quickly have 817 looking parade-ready.
Good thing, because Charles arrives with his Mizzou ROTC cadet
escort 15 minutes early, dressed in a full military flight suit complete
with red ascot, and he’s ready to go. I have no idea what to expect,
but over the years I have learned to live in the moment and let good
things happen with a natural ease. I ask Charles what he wants to do,
and he asks me, “Have you completed the preflight?”
“Yes sir, she’s ready to go and even warmed up,” I reply.
“Then let’s go fly the Stearman!”
He climbs in, straps himself in, adjusts
the rudder pedals to his fit, adjusts the seat
height, and checks the flight controls, free
and correct. I sense right away that he’s very
comfortable in this airplane. Then my son,
John, primes us and clears the props, and
I strap in and start up the W-670, soon
rewarded with that “Continental crackle”
of a smooth engine. We agree who will fly
the airplane in the event of an emergency,
we adjust volumes on the intercom, I tell
him what to expect from the Redline brakes,
and I say, “The airplane is yours.”
With a deft touch, Charles taxies out,
stops short of the hold line, and says, “You
should do the run-up.” After getting clear-
ance from the tower, I communicate that
we’re clear and say I’m ready to fly. Those
are our last spoken words for nearly an hour.
With that, he rolls to the middle of 100-foot-
wide Runway 02, smoothly applies power,
wobbles a little left of the centerline (we are
on hard pavement, remember), corrects,
holds straight, and easily lifts off into the
smoothest air of the week.
The Tuskegee Airmen
Charles McGee in Army Air Corps uniform.
Before 1940, AfricAn-Americans were
banned from flying for the United States military. After pressure from civil rights
organizations, the black press, and others, the
War Department formed an all-black squadron at the segregated Tuskegee Army Air Field
at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. First Lady
Eleanor Roosevelt inspected the program in
March 1941; after a flight with the chief
instructor, she announced her approval.
Although they earned the right to fly for
the military, the Tuskegee Airmen had to
petition Washington to allow them to serve
in combat. In April 1943, they were finally
considered ready and were sent to fight in
the European theater. Their
first mission, to attack the
Italian island Pantelleria, was
a success: The Italians surren-
dered, one of the first
instances an enemy was over-
come only by air power.