Tuskegee Airmen on mission to teach students

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Wilbur Mason, left, and Val Archer, former members of the Tuskegee Airmen, speak to students about their military experiences during the Tuskegee Airmen Aviation Career Training program at Delta Air Lines headquarters, June 18, 2013, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Jaime Henry-White)

by Jeff Martin

ATLANTA (AP) — As the U.S. military’s first Black aviators, the Tuskegee Airmen had a double challenge: flying in the dangerous skies during World War II, and fighting a war against prejudice waged by allies both at home and overseas.

Now some of the airmen’s members have undertaken another mission: helping high school students rise above obstacles in their pursuit of aviation careers through a program that also aims to ensure the survival of the Tuskegee legacy.

Tuskegee Airmen Val Archer, 84, and Wilbur Mason, 88, met with students recently for the inaugural weeklong class of the Tuskegee Airmen Aviation Career Training program at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Archer, who was an airplane mechanic and later an aircraft instrument specialist, says he considers it his duty to try to instill confidence in young aviators to help them obtain their goals.

“We have a responsibility for them,” he said. “We’ve been aware of it for many years, but it has become increasingly more important.”

The course, which ended Friday, took place in a training center owned by Delta Airlines, which has its hub at Hartsfield-Jackson. Delta pilots were on hand to guide the students, who learned the science of flight and practiced flying on flight simulators. The program was conceived by Andrew Fellers, a 37-year-old Delta pilot who also is president of the Atlanta chapter of Tuskegee Airmen Inc., a support group for the airmen with chapters throughout the United States.

Fellers acknowledged that there are other aviation programs aimed at young people in the U.S. But he felt it was important to educate students about the history of the airmen, who became military pilots and crewmen despite deep racial prejudice from some who believed that African-Americans did not have sufficient skills.

“In my personal opinion, we’re starting to lose who the Tuskegee Airmen were,” he said. “If we don’t talk about it, it’s going to be forgotten. We need to make sure they understand what they did and their mark in history.”

Fellers and other organizers plan to hold the school annually in Atlanta, and their goal is to eventually expand it nationwide.

The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-Americans to both prepare and fly combat airplanes in World War II.

Trained in Tuskegee, Alabama, hundreds of the Airmen worked to maintain planes and their base, while fewer than 1,000 pilots flew missions, Fellers said. No one can say for certain how many Tuskegee Airmen are still living, said Sandra Campbell, a spokeswoman with Tuskegee Airmen Inc., the national group that works to keep their legacy alive.

Tuskegee Airmen and their aircraft have been referred to as “Red Tails” for the red-painted wings of their airplanes. Hollywood producers used the name as the title of a 2012 film showcasing the unit’s struggles and its accomplishments.

President George W. Bush awarded the Tuskegee Airmen the Congressional Gold Medal in a ceremony at the Capitol Rotunda in 2007.

During the medal ceremony, Bush said of the airmen, “They were fighting two wars. One was in Europe, and the other took place in the hearts and minds of our citizens.”

Receiving the award “brought home to us the importance of our role and what it means to people coming along after us, particularly the African-American men,” said Archer, who added that he feels a responsibility to make an imprint on the students’ lives.

Asked before he met with students what he would say to them, Archer paused, noting that he had put a great deal of thought into that.

“Stay focused, pay attention,” he said. “Don’t wait for some individual to tell you that you can be smart. Have the confidence in yourself to do it.”

Fellers, who is Black, is deeply appreciative of the Tuskegee Airmen’s efforts to break the color barrier that once kept African-Americans out of the skies.

“I don’t know that I would have this job if not for that era that these men went through,” he said.

Fellers fell in love with aviation while watching the crop-dusting planes swoop over his grandparents’ fields near Bainbridge, Ga. when he was 4 and 5 years old. He rose from loading bags onto planes shortly after high school graduation to eventually flying jets across the globe as a Delta pilot.

Archer said it will be up to Black pilots such as Fellers to help continue the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen.

“Maybe he’s standing on our shoulders,” Archer said. “But it’s also important for the next generation who may be standing on his shoulders.”

On Tuesday, the 29 students from Atlanta and the surrounding area stood and erupted in cheers as Archer and Mason were introduced. Many of the students were just a couple of years older than the Tuskegee Airmen when they trained in Alabama.

“I think that your potential is incredible — it’s more than my generation ever dreamed of,” Archer told the students. “You want to make sure you’re giving it your best shot right now.”

Mason, who helped to maintain equipment for the pilots and ground crew, drove home the importance of making good decisions, telling the teens, “You’ve got to do your best every day, all day.”

“Your obstacles will be just as great to you as our obstacles were to us,” Mason said.

Sarah Hopkins, 15, of Atlanta, said it was inspiring to hear how the airmen were able to rise above the racial divide. She has hopes of a career in aviation, and said the encouragement from the Tuskegee Airmen will help her pursue it.

“It’s definitely in my grasp now,” she said.

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