During the uncertain days of World War II, the United States population, men and women alike, moved out of their comfort zones and out into roles to support the war effort in any way they could. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, military recruiting stations had lines sometimes as long as a city block. Women left their homes to take jobs in production plants, which were vacant after much of the male work force was now in the armed forces. It would take our entire country joining together to defeat pure evil. And this challenge did not recognize skin color. Americans of all ethnic groups joined the war effort. One group of African Americans would change the course of history. They were given many nicknames, such as “Tuskegee Airmen” (due to where they trained in Tuskegee, Alabama) or “Red Tails” (due to the red-painted tails of their aircraft). Officially they were the 332nd Fighter Group. They had to fight racism before they could even get a chance to actually fight in the war. They learned to fly at Moton Field in Tuskegee, Alabama, and later served in Africa and eventually Italy where they flew bomber escort missions. The latter role is where the Red Tails became legends. The contributions of the Tuskegee Airmen far exceed just their wartime exploits. They became a vehicle for the hopes and dreams of many who were minorities in the U.S. Thanks to a dedicated group, the ripples of their splash into history are still being felt.
Along the country roads in Alabama lays an airfield. Anyone interested in aviation history can quickly identify the hangars and control tower as World War II vintage. As you drive on to the field, the feeling of history is tangible. For many, walking on to the ramp at Moton Field is like walking on the baseball diamond that is the Field of Dreams site. During the war years, this site is where the Tuskegee Airmen received their initial training. Thanks to the Red Tail Scholarship Foundation, young men and women of color are still earning their wings on this hallowed ground.
One does not have to look far to see the ties between what those brave men and women did in the 1940s to what is happening at Moton Field today. “For me, Tuskegee is a part of my family. My grandfather was a Tuskegee Airman, and my great uncle was the chief mechanic at Moton Field,” said Craig Moore. For Craig, this was something he feels he was destined to pursue. “I was raised around aircraft as my father is a private pilot and EAA member. I can vividly remember sitting in the family Mooney, going out for vacation. The whole time I was sitting back there, I just couldn’t wait until a time that I would get to move to that front seat. Tuskegee gave me the opportunity to pursue a degree in aerospace engineering and work for Scaled Composites. There I was able to work on a large spanning process from design, building, and testing of three payloads in the Proteus Program.”
While working in California, Craig could always feel something calling him back to that ramp in Tuskegee. Craig was working and received a call from a friend that there was an airplane left abandoned at an airport about an hour away. “I went to check it out and we found this old Piper [Cherokee] 140 that had not flown in many years. In the window was a notice from the city that the plane had to be moved. On it, the owner’s name was listed.” After a little hunting, Craig was able to find the gentleman who owned the airplane. “After talking with the owner, he told me that he was willing to sell as the aircraft had not been flown in over a decade.” Little by little, Craig, along with his brother Rodney and his group of friends, restored this Cherokee to flying condition. “We spent a lot of time going through every system on the aircraft. We really poured our all into that aircraft.” After a short hop and some final work, they flew the Piper to its new home on Moton Field. “That short 30-minute flight was one of the most memorable moments of my life.”
“I knew I was going to be a pilot since I was five,” says Rodney McKnight. Rodney served in the United States Marine Corps on MH-53 helicopters. This inspired him even further to get his pilot certificate. “I had just been offered a full-time position somewhere when I found out that I had received a scholarship to fly full time. I made the decision that I would pursue what I knew I wanted to do. That was to fly. I would figure the rest out. Sometimes you have to take chances.”
Inspiration comes in all forms. For Jared Savage, EAA 1060936, it came in the form of an animated series. “I would watch The Koala Brothers with my brother when I was around four and after seeing it I knew that I too wanted to fly. It was the first thing that inspired me. I worked hard and earned my pilot’s license while still in high school. I think a lot of families push their kids towards a generic career. Being a pilot is something that a lot of the African-American community does not know how to get their kids an opportunity in. We are here to be that outlet.”
The Red Tail Scholarship Foundation is indeed being that outlet. Jared has seen the change just one flight can make on the trajectory of a child’s future. “I have taken kids on an orientation flight and when they first arrived at the airport, they didn’t even realize there was an airport there. Then a few minutes into the flight, you can actually see the change. It is always very special to see that spark come alive for the first time. I think that spark to get someone fired up about flying can come in so many different forms. It is very personal. Ask any pilot what first inspired them, and I guarantee what you will hear next is a love story.” Today, Jared serves as the Red Tail Scholarship Foundation’s chief pilot.
Emilia Tolbert was always interested in aviation. “I would make my family take me to the air show. I loved seeing all the planes and wanted to fly, but I really didn’t know how to take the next step. It seemed so far away for me.” Emilia had the chance to meet some of the original World War II Tuskegee Airmen and she said she was even further inspired by them. Emilia graduated from Spelman College with her bachelor’s degree and was working to figure out where to go for her master’s degree when her brother mentioned Tuskegee University. She earned her master’s degree in environmental science there. While there, she became aware of the Red Tail Scholarship Foundation. Having grown up in the area, she knew of the heroes who flew from her home airport, and now it was her turn to help. “We were there to not just fly, but to ensure we preserve their legacy. A legacy of those who stood up for an entire group of Americans and said, ‘We too can fly.’”
Craig’s and Emilia’s sound advice to younger generations is “Do not be afraid to make mistakes.” Emilia continues, “Mistakes are going to happen, but it is not that they happen, it is how you handle them that matters the most. Get out of your comfort zone. Go after your dreams. Know that they will take hard work, but use patience to achieve them.”
“This is not just any airport. This is Tuskegee,” says Emilia. “We always remember it is an honor and a privilege to fly from this runway, the same runway those men roared down in the 1940s.”
“Every day there is a huge part of me that takes a step back and takes a view of the gravity of what we are doing,” says Craig. “This airfield is a part of my heritage and blood.”
Today the Red Tail Scholarship Foundation continues to ensure their mission of not just flight training, but the larger part of their mission — providing the opportunity. Learn more information on the foundation ›
Members of the team will also be at AirVenture in 2021 in the KidVenture area where their mission to inspire will be on full display.