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Sun, Feb 12, 2006

Pilots Reflect On Being Tuskegee Legacy Heirs

Something special began July 19, 1941. For the first time in the history of military aviation, blacks were given an opportunity to prove themselves in the sky.

The first black aviators began their flight training at Tuskegee Army Air Field, Ala., and went to the famed 99th Fighter Squadron.

The Tuskegee Airmen had to fight not only the Nazis, but the prejudices within their own military. Despite being allowed to fly, military aviation units were segregated by race.

Today, the heirs of their legacy take to the skies above Langley.

Captains Glenn Gonzales (pictured) and Alex Edwards are two black officers who fly F-15 Eagles in the 71st Fighter Squadron. While neither joined the Air Force because of the Tuskegee Airmen, they both agree hearing about the Tuskegee Airmen encouraged them to pursue their goals as pilots.

“I had an idea of who they were,” Captain Gonzales said. “But not to the extent of their contributions.”

He said it was his training at the Air Force Academy that first opened his eyes to their impact.

“One of the quotes we had to learn was in regards to the Tuskegee Airmen,” he said.

“To be honest, it seemed that these guys were just like all of us. They were Airmen like the rest of us.”

Captain Edwards first learned about the Tuskegee Airmen from the 1995 HBO movie, “The Tuskegee Airmen.”

“I thought it was a cool and inspiring story,” he said. “The more I learned about it, the more I knew that (flying) was what I wanted to do.”

By that time, he already knew he was going to fly. It was just a matter of how. His high school classmates just thought he was dreaming.

“There weren’t a lot of black people doing it,” he said. “They’d think, ‘I’d never seen a black pilot before, so I don’t think I’m going to see one now.’”

While racism still exists in 21st century America, Captains Edwards and Gonzales said that today’s Air Force welcomed them.

“The Tuskegee Airmen’s experience was totally different,” Captain Edwards said.
Both men said they’ve tried to live up to their legacy.

“I recruited for awhile,” Captain Edwards said. “I tried to get more African-Americans into the Air Force. I think some thought it was unattainable, but you don’t know what’s going to be hard until you try.”

“I want to be the best officer, best pilot, best Airman I can,” Captain Gonzales said. “Where ever that takes me, that’s where I’ll go.”

Captain Gonzales said the Tuskegee legacy was one that can be embraced by all Airmen.

“They were just like me and just like you. These guys were warfighters for our nation. They did their job, not with the intent to make a name for black aviators, but to be fighters for their country,” Captain Gonzales said.

“Their story shouldn’t be reserved just for February. Their story should be celebrated throughout the year,” he said. [ANN Salutes Staff Sgt. Thomas J. Doscher, 1st Fighter Wing Public Affairs]

FMI: www.af.mil

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