By Greta Guest
St. Clair Shores Memorial Day Parade
Retired Master Sgt. Alfonso King remembers first wanting to become a pilot when he was in 9th grade. He joined the Army Reserve Officers Training Corps’ in high school and then enlisted.
The Tuskegee Airman served 30 years in Vietnam and Operation Desert Storm in the U.S. Air Force. Now he teaches young aviators and drone pilots, and notes the huge opportunity created as baby boomers in the industry retire.
“You can be a lot of things in aviation. You can be an examiner, you don’t have to be a pilot,” he said. “The opportunity is there. It’s a wide field. Right now, there are over 10,000 pilots needed because the baby boomers are retiring.”
Members of local chapters of the Tuskegee Airmen were joined by the Black Pilots of America, Detroit Chapter in the Black History Month presentation at the St. Clair Shores Public Library on Saturday. The event was sponsored by the St. Clair Shores Memorial Day Parade, in which members of both groups have appeared over the years.
Of the nearly 1,000 original Tuskegee Airmen -- America’s first black pilots also known as Red Tails -- as few as six are still living, King said. He’s met more than 300 of them during his life including Capt. Richard Macon. Macon was shot down in Germany and was a prisoner of war. He was awarded a Purple Heart, but few people knew about it.
He was a college-educated mathematician who worked with Albert Einstein for a while. He taught in Detroit schools and became the principal of Martin Luther King Jr. High School, Kind said. “A lot of people don’t realize this because these guys were so quiet and so modest,” he said. “They didn’t complain about anything. They did what they had to do, they did their job and came home.”
Representatives from the Tuskegee Airmen, Detroit chapter, also spoke Saturday at the library as part of Black History Month. Those in attendance learned about some of the accomplished Black pilots who opened doors for many others.
Bill Welborne, Tuskegee Airmen, Detroit chapter, was stationed in Korea and Vietnam with 33 years in the U.S. Air Force. He spoke of Lt. Col. Alexander Jefferson, who had been stationed at Selfridge Air Force Base. At that time, in 1944, his commander restricted Black pilots to the base.
“He got away from that and went overseas. They went to Africa first and then went to Italy. They flew out of there and their job was to escort the bombers,” Welborne said. “Nothing else mattered. That’s what made the Tuskegee Airmen so good. They were excellent at flying. They were some of the best flyers in the world.”
Jefferson was captured by the Germans and was a prisoner of war until the war ended. He was one of the founders of the Detroit chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen and also an elementary school science teacher in Detroit. He retired as an assistant principal in 1979 and is in the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame. He received numerous military awards including the Bronze Star, the Purple Heart Medal and the Congressional Gold Medal.
Beverly Kindle-Walker, with the Friends of Detroit City Airport, shared the stories of two notable women including Betsy Coleman, who in 1921 was the first U.S. citizen to earn an international pilot’s license. She had to train in France because “she had sexism and racism working against her.”
And Willa Brown, who was of Native American and African American descent, was the first Black woman to earn her commercial pilot’s license and mechanic’s license in the United States. “She could fly her plane and she could fix it.”
She married Cornelius Coffey and they started the Challenger Club in Chicago, which became the National Negro Airmen Association of America and later the Black Pilots of America. The main goal was to expose young people, and particularly young Black people to the field of aviation.
“The bottom line is we need to get more than 3% of Black people involved in aviation,” Kindle-Walker said. “It’s still that number as it was way back when… 3%. That’s really bad.”
Coming out of World War I, military policy didn’t allow Blacks to fly, she said. Some said that exposure to aviation was a way to overcome racism. “Because as Betsy Coleman said, ‘there’s no prejudice in the air. Your skill is your skill.”
Kindle-Walker said if it wasn’t for First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s 1941 visit to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama and her hour-long flight with Chief Civilian Flight Instructor Charles Alfred Anderson, known today as “The Father of Black Aviation,” the idea of Black pilots in the military probably wouldn’t have happened.
And Lenetta Barnett, a BPA volunteer, spoke of Stephanie Johnson, a Detroit-based pilot and the first African American female to graduate from Kent State University with a degree in flight technology. She was hired in 1997 as the first Black female pilot with Northwest Airlines. And in 2016 she became the first African American female captain at Delta Airlines.
“We are honored to celebrate her this Black History Month and every month,” Barnett said. “Johnson and First Officer Dawn Cook made aviation history on March 6, 2017 when they flew Delta flight 555 from Detroit to Las Vegas – the first flight piloted by two African American women.”
To learn more about the Black Pilots Association, check out the group’s website: https://bpadetroit.wixsite.com/bpadetroit
More information on the Tuskegee Airmen can be found here: https://www.tuskegeemuseum.org
For more information on Roosevelt’s famous flight, go to: https://www.fdrlibrary.org/tuskegee