Monday, October 1, 2007
From The Editor: Red-Tailed Angels
I can’t understand can’t
In what has turned into an unintentional theme this issue, I seem to have focused on, twice, people or groups that broke new ground in aviation. They were, in some way, told that they couldn’t or shouldn’t, or that it was unusual or possibly inappropriate, to fly. Not only did these people and groups fly, and prove wrong the legions of naysayers, defeatists and perpetuators of negative stereotypes, but they each rose to legendary status in aviation lore.
One story began at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Tuskegee, Ala. In 1941, 13 young black men enlisted in the Army Air Corps to become America’s first black airmen. At the time, many thought black men such as these noble aviation cadets lacked the intelligence, courage, skill, discipline and patriotism to become pilots and serve the United States. These cadets passed the same stringent physical and intellectual exams as any typical airman applicant, and once accepted to the program, they then had to earn their wings while fighting against an undercurrent of racism. In March of 1942, five of the initial 13 completed the training.
Over the next few years, another 994 pilots graduated to become Tuskegee Airmen, and of those 994, 450 were commissioned to operations overseas in either the 99th Pursuit (Fighter) Squadron or the 332nd Fighter Group. Earlier this year, the Tuskegee Airmen were finally recognized with the Congressional Gold Medal, our nation’s highest civilian award bestowed by Congress. On page 68, the son of an Airman who attended the ceremony at the Capitol gives us some background on the Red Tails and recounts that special day. As I’ve said on these pages before, aviation is infused with history, and there are lessons for us all in the history of the Tuskegee Airmen.
It makes sense that one of air show star Patty Wagstaff’s idols is legendary aviatrix Jackie Cochran. In her day, Cochran set more speed and altitude records than any other pilot, period—male or female—winning an astounding 14 Harmon Trophies in the process, and more than 200 awards and trophies total. She also led the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots (WASPs) during World War II and received the U.S. Distinguished Service Medal for her efforts. After the war, in 1952, Cochran became the first woman to break the sound barrier, piercing Mach 1 in an F-86 Sabre Jet. And while Cochran wasn’t one of the Mercury 13, the women who passed the same tests that NASA administered to its male astronaut candidates, she lobbied for equal opportunity—the opportunity to go to space.
Fast-forward to summer 2007 and another female pilot who has set records, won numerous decorations and awards for her own fancy flying, and is now an inspiration to young women and people everywhere, including this editor—air show superstar, Patty Wagstaff. Flying was in Wagstaff’s blood from day one, as her father was a captain for Japan Air Lines, and it was through her father that her love affair with aviation was kindled. Those glowing embers that were sparked during Wagstaff’s childhood have grown into a raging aviation inferno that has taken her from Alaska in 1979 and her first flying lesson in a Cessna 185 floatplane to three consecutive titles as U.S. National Aerobatic Champion, in 1991, 1992 and 1993—the first woman to do so, and one of the very few, male or female, to do it three times. In 1994, her Extra 260 was put on display in the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum’s Pioneers of Flight gallery next to Amelia Earhart’s red Lockheed 5B Vega and Lindbergh’s Lockheed 8 Sirius. Like Cochran, Wagstaff experienced skepticism and chauvinism throughout her storied career, and pushed through it to achieve a stellar level of achievement. On page 40, you too can take this National Aviation Hall of Fame inductee’s fire-breathing Extra 300 show plane for the proverbial spin and fly like a champion.