Friday, August 13, 2021

Carolina Sojourn | Part 4, Where Red Tails Soared

"We Dared Not Fail..."

In July 1941, the first 13 Black cadets arrived in Tuskegee, AL to begin training as Army Air Corps pilots. Tuskegee was home to its eponymous Institute, founded in 1881 to train African American teachers and was famously headed by Booker T Washington in its early days. Celebrated academics like George Washington Carver led the Tuskegee Institute (now University) down a path toward high academic standards. In 1939, it became the first place to offer government-funded flight training for Black pilots under the Civilian Pilot Training Program.

Moton Field in 2021

In 1941, Moton Field, named for the second president of the Tuskegee Institute, was constructed for primary flight training of all Black pilots in World War II. Support for this program was famously boosted by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt after she flew with Tuskegee's head of pilot training, Charles "Chief" Anderson in March of 1941. Ultimately, nearly 1000 Black pilots earned their wings at Moton Field where they trained alongside some 15,000 support staff (mechanics, clerks, parachute riggers etc). Today, those pilots are celebrated as the Tuskegee Airmen, who are best known for their skillful defense of bomber crews over the skies of Europe from the cockpits of red-tailed P-51 Mustangs. It is a long standing myth that the Tuskegee Airmen never lost a bomber. While the numbers debunk that myth, the Tuskegee Airmen nonetheless boasted superior statistics when compared to average Army Air Corps squadrons and refuted the myopically prejudiced conventional wisdom that African Americans were incapable of flying airplanes.

Restored P-51C, Tuskegee Airmen, photographed in Geneseo, NY on 09 July 2011.
Note the red spinner and tail, hallmarks of the Tuskegee Airmen.

That the Tuskegee Airmen were extraordinary should not be surprising; they had to be. Struggling to attain elite pilot roles in a segregated military, training in the heart of the Jim Crow south, they were allowed no margin for error. If pilot training at Tuskegee was viewed as an experiment, failure was the null hypothesis. As Charles Dryden, a student at Moton Field in 1942 said, "Our mantra was that we dared not fail..."

Modern sectional chart showing Moton Field. The closed airport depicted just northwest
of Moton is the deteriorating former Tuskegee Army Airfield / Sharpe Field,

Today, Moton Field (06A) leads a dual existence as both a municipal airport and as the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site where the legacy of the Airmen is preserved and honored in the very same structures where those Black Army Air Corps cadets thrived during the early 1940s. Sadly, the nearby remains of the Tuskegee Army Air Field, where the Tuskegee Airmen would have completed their training after earning their wings at Moton, is slowly being reabsorbed into the Alabama terrain.

Side Trip for History Buffs

With Tuskegee a mere 2.5 hour ride from Hilton Head, Mark and I decided to explore the National Historic Site. This would be Mark's first flight in a light aircraft. Due to a mixture of pandemic precautions and short staffing at the National Park Service, the site could only be toured on Fridays and Saturdays and, of the two large hangars, only Hangar 1 was actually available to visit. Being a national park, there is no admission fee. Because Saturday was our travel day to return home, this left Friday as our only opportunity. Fortunately, the weather was cooperative. Mark received his first general aviation flight, we both expanded our educations on the Tuskegee Airmen, and I added a new state to my map for the first time in many years: Alabama.

I Am a "Very Good" Flight Planner!
[Slams fist on conference room table]

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total (hrs)
13 Aug 2021 N21481 HXD (Hilton Head Island, SC) - 06A (Tuskegee, AL) - HXD 5.5 2327.7

Departing the area around Hilton Head

Mark and I were cleared for takeoff behind a commercial 737. "Caution wake turbulence, immediate turn on course approved," Hilton Head Tower needlessly advised. I rotated well before the airliner's take-off point to remain above its wake, but knew that flying runway heading would eventually run me through the residual vortex of the large plane's steeper ascent. As soon as I could do so without clipping the trees, I banked to the right to avoid the invisible hazard.

The flight to Alabama was conducted under VFR in clear, smooth air. We passed the time en route with me walking the technologically-astute Mark through my ship's instrumentation. Describing the instruments is a lot more complex in 2021 than it was with the 1970s panel I had just after acquiring the Warrior.

Sectional chart showing deviation around the R-3002 restricted airspace complex

"Cherokee Four Eight One, are you familiar with restricted area R-3002? It is active and you might need to deviate to the north to avoid it," suggested Atlanta Approach.

"Cherokee Four Eight One is currently direct to Columbus [VOR], which should avoid the restricted area," I answered.

"Cherokee Four Eight One, very good." The controller seemed quite surprised that I had anticipated the restricted airspace and was already making accommodations for it. Did his surprise say something about my judgement as a pilot or was it more revealing of what he typically sees?

Landing in History's Wake

Mark and I arrived at 9:30 CDT having crossed into a different time zone at the Alabama border. Moton Field -- or "Tuskegee" as the locals call it on the radio -- became airport # 232 for me. 

Not far from the ramp, the National Historic Site was clearly visible.

We were met immediately by a lineman who offered us fuel. At $4.30/gal off the truck, it was the best deal of the entire trip. When I told him that fuel at Hilton Head Island was $7.27/gal, he just shook his head in disgust. "You know, it all comes from the same place," he correctly pointed out. 

Mark and I followed him into the recently built FBO where, despite a mask mandate inside the building, we were invited to eat our picnic lunches in the air conditioned kitchenette. We were even offered snacks and beverages. While many small airports are friendly, Moton took that to the next level by being outright welcoming.

"History Has Its Eyes on You"

Our tour was focused on Hangar 1, the original operations facility for the cadet training program. Unfortunately, Hangar 2 was closed due to short staffing.

Like most WWII cadets, Tuskeee Airmen generally learned to fly in the Boeing Stearman PT-17 Kaydet, an already obsolete biplane design from the 1930s with poor visibility and a narrow gear stance prone to ground looping. It trained pilots well.

A partially-skinned wing served as an excellent example of the Stearman's wing structure, fabric skin attachment, and the finished doped and painted surface.

I have always had great affection for the Stearman, no doubt inherited from my mentor, Dave. It is one of only two biplane types in which I have had any significant stick time (the other being a 1929 Travel Air 4000). This example at Moton Field was absolutely beautiful.

Also on display was a Piper Cub in which those who came to Tuskegee by way of the Civilian Pilot Training Program likely would have learned to fly.

One unique aspect of the museum is that it is not just filled with artifacts. An effort is made to introduce visitors to the people, both in written profiles and in audio recordings of the men themselves. One of the profiled pilots entered the program with Bachelors and Masters degrees in engineering from MIT. That example underscored for me how extraordinary these men were, to have entered the program with such accomplishments at a time when society would have actively resisted their efforts to achieve. Their fortitude was impressive and inspiring.

Supply rooms and operations offices are arranged around the periphery of the hangar, restored with period artifacts to provide a sense of what they were like in the 1940s.

Well, there's a reminder of home in a faraway place.

We listened to an audio recording of the chief mechanic, who described how many of his charges during the war were Black women. Some arrived never having even handled a screwdriver. Nonetheless, they were capably trained to keep those PT-17s flying.

Evidently, yellow-tags have been around for a long time!

Perhaps the most striking office artifacts were the cigarettes and ashtrays present on nearly every desk. I had a sudden urge to cough just contemplating a work environment suffused with that much noxious smoke.

Mark noticed that there was no "1" on the keyboard. Evidently they made due with "I".

A period appropriate sectional chart in the flight planning office depicted examples of the four course "A-N range" navigation that pre-dated VOR.

A lounge contained training materials for ship, aircraft, and even uniform recognition.

It's not exactly the Victoria's Secret catalog, is it?

Isn't this, like, the coolest Battleship game ever?

Exploring the Site

Outside, we explored the structures bequeathed to posterity from the early 1940s. A large hill overlooks the site and, from there, we could see both the modern FBO as well as the surviving Army Air Corps buildings.

The FBO and Warrior 481

Next to Hangar 1 were two "ghost structures" depicting the placement of the cadet house and army supply building lost to the ages. Because information about them only exists as exterior photographs, the National Park Service created these ghost structures rather than attempting to reproduce the original buildings.

Doors and windows in the ghost structures were hung by not-quite-invisible steel cable, making them seem to float along the sides of the false buildings.

A plaque bearing this historic photograph was positioned roughly where the photographer must have stood.

Hangar 2 with its control tower was competed in 1944.

I suspect that the AC units were a recent addition, comfort in lieu of historical accuracy.

Alabama Heat Versus the iPad

It was hot in Tuskegee. While parked there, I followed my usual practice and tucked the iPad into a large pocket in the Warrior to avoid direct sunlight exposure. But the ambient air inside the cockpit was so hot when I started everything up for departure that the iPad objected as soon as I switched it on. While heat is a known problem for iPads, this was the first time I experienced this with either of the two iPad Pros that I have owned, despite all the hot climate flying I did in 2021. Fortunately, after just a few minutes of flying with the vents open, the iPad cooled right down to a comfortable operating temperature and I was able to use it to monitor traffic practicing a hold over the Tuskegee VOR as we climbed away from the airport.

From above the airport, we could see the entire National Historic Site, the FBO, and the training fleet for the aptly-named Red Tails Flight Academy.

Once above the thermal convection, I turned the controls over to Mark for him to try his hand at flying. He did great!

We received another warning from Atlanta Approach about the restricted area near Columbus on the way back to Hilton Head. But I was already managing that. A larger problem was building cumulus. Unable to outclimb the buildups to remain VFR, we spiraled down through a large hole and continued eastbound at 3,000 feet over relatively flat terrain. To my surprise, the ride was not particularly bumpy. This was important to me because I wanted Mark to have a pleasant experience.

Despite distant evidence of thunderstorms that correlated well with uplinked NEXRAD imagery, the return flight was conducted in excellent weather.

Approaching Hilton Head Island from the west.

Overall, it was a great adventure. I was glad for Mark's company and pleased to have finally made the pilgrimage to Tuskegee. There were many moments that inspired quiet contemplation at Moton Field. Although the existing airfield is displaced many decades from its bustling past as an Army Air Corps training facility, I could almost envision the afterimages of the men and women who gave the place life as though time were a mere diaphanous veil. I think that this is a power that historical sites possess, the ability to summon and experience images of the past at the very point in space where they occurred.