- Col. Charles McGee, a retired Air Force pilot and a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, celebrated his 100th birthday by piloting a private jet on Friday.
- McGee flew 409 combat missions in World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam. He retired in 1973.
- On Friday, he flew to Dover Air Force Base, where he was greeted by 40 active-duty airmen.
- “To be able to get in the air and share with those who are serving today, I don’t really have an answer, but this is one of life’s blessings,” McGee said.
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McGee, who turned 100 on Saturday, was one of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first cadre of African-American pilots in the US military. According to Tuskegee University in Alabama, 1,000 African-American pilots graduated from the training program from 1941 to 1946, although they still lived in segregated housing while training.
Read on to learn more about Col. McGee.
McGee was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1919 and graduated flight school in 1943.
On Friday, McGee and Boni Caldeira, a pilot and executive director of Cirrus Aircraft, flew a Cirrus SF50 Vision Jet from Frederick, Maryland, to Dover Air Force Base, where he was welcomed with high-fives by 40 airmen.
“What a thrill where technology has taken us,” McGee told local news station WBOC. “It was such a smooth flight.”
McGee is a highly decorated combat veteran.
According to the National Aviation Hall of Fame, McGee has been awarded the Legion of Merit with an Oak Leaf Cluster and the Distinguished Flying Cross with Two Clusters, among others.
McGee and the other Tuskegee Airmen collectively earned the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award presented by Congress, in 2007 for breaking barriers for equality in the armed forces.
McGee also flew a private jet for his 99th birthday, alongside retired Airman Glenn Gonzalez.
The Washington Post reported last year that air-traffic controllers on duty at the time wished McGee a happy birthday over the headset. That jaunt took him to and from Dulles international airport.
For his 100th birthday this year, McGee, one of the oldest living Tuskegee airmen, celebrated with about 40 active-duty airmen.
“To be able to get in the air and share with those who are serving today, I don’t really have an answer, but this is one of life’s blessings,” he told WBOC.
While the Tuskegee Airmen were celebrated for their heroism during World War II, they came back to a country that was still segregated.
“We were often denied basic privileges given to other officers, such as the right to go to an Officer’s Club,” McGee wrote in a short autobiography for the National Air and Space Museum.
McGee’s own wife and oldest daughter were barred from living with him when he returned to the US and was stationed at an air base in Kansas because housing there was still segregated, according to The Washington Post.
“But our record of bravery in adverse conditions played a major role in ending segregation and bringing about social change in America,” McGee wrote.
Calderia said that McGee was flying on his own for most of the 20-minute trip.
“I’m in the right seat, and I’m not doing a whole lot,” Caldeira told WBOC. “I guess I’m talking to air traffic controls.”
This year, the Air Force named its new training jet in honour of McGee and the rest of the Tuskegee Airmen
The new T-7A Red Hawk training jet is named for the celebrated squadron, which painted the tails of their aircraft red, earning them the nickname “Red Tails.”
“We painted our Mustangs’ tails red so the Germans knew who they were dealing with! The bomber pilots we protected – all of whom were white – called us the ‘Red Tail Angels,'” McGee wrote in the autobiography.
The new aircraft are also named for the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, which was flown by the 99th Squadron, the first African-American squadron in the US Army Air Force.
McGee attributes his longevity to positive thinking.
It’s a sentiment that has carried through his whole life.
“I am often asked why the Tuskegee Airmen were so successful in combat,” McGee wrote. “I would say it was because of our courage and perseverance. We dreamed of being pilots as boys but were told it was not possible. Through faith and determination we overcame enormous obstacles.”