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K-State, Tuskegee Partnership continues legacy of WWII visitors, advances diversity in education

By Keener A. Tippin II

 

 

History often repeats itself. At Kansas State University at Salina, a trio of future aviators who may someday change the face of the commercial airline industry repeated the history and legacy of a group of black aviators who changed the complexion of America's armed forces.

During World War II the Tuskegee Airmen -- a term used to describe the black fighter pilots of the 99th Pursuit Squadron, later incorporated into the 332nd Fighter Group -- compiled an enviable record in more than 15,000 bomber escort and ground attack sorties: None of the bombers they accompanied were lost to enemy fighters; they destroyed more than 260 enemy aircraft and won more than 850 medals.

They were called "Black Birdmen" by German soldiers who both feared and respected them and reverently referred to them as the "Black Redtail Angels" because of the identifying red paint on the tail of their aircraft by white bomber crews they escorted. The young black pilots received flight training at Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), the famed school of learning founded by Booker T. Washington, and Tuskegee Army Air Field, the only training facility for black military pilots.

Despite the success of the "Tuskegee Experiment" and the advances made by the pilots, their courage, hard work and devotion to the idea of freedom, these aviators were challenged with the contradiction of fighting for democracy overseas, while being denied civil rights at home. Their battles were the precursor to the civil rights movement of the 1960s as they paved the way for integration in the military.

Although not tackling the same overt discrimination or up against the backdrop of war as their predecessors, students Tiji Allen, Everand Woodard and Jarret Wallace face the daunting task of carrying on the illustrious legacy of those famed aviators as they unleash the power of diversity in their own right. The trio spent their summer learning to soar the friendly skies as they attempted to gain their private pilots licenses in America's heartland.

They were the first participants in a proposed partnership forged between two prominent land-grant institutions, K-State and Tuskegee University, to train multicultural, professional pilots in the tradition of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen. The U.S. Air Force, Dow Chemical, Southwest Airlines and Air Midwest have provided initial support for the program.

The program condenses K-State at Salina's 16-week private pilot classes into six weeks of ground and flight training. Allen, Wallace and Woodard earned their private pilot certification in summer 2000 at the K-State at Salina Aviation Center.

Although there was concern the condensed program would be difficult for the students, all handled it well. Wallace, who unlike his fellow students has had previous flight training, found the pace suited him.

"I find it helpful because you get to learn a lot and the information is always fresh," Wallace said. "My lessons in Michigan were moving kind of slow, but coming down here and learning about five lessons in a single a day was putting the pedal to the metal, but I really like moving fast because it kind of forces you to study."

The concept of the partnership proposes to blend K-State's professional pilot's degree program with any degree program at Tuskegee. Students work toward their degree curriculums during the fall and spring semesters at Tuskegee in addition to taking distance education courses from K-State, should they choose to earn an airway science degree as well. They return to Salina during the summer months for academic and flight courses toward their aviation degree. The long-term goal for the partnership is to assist Tuskegee to revive their aviation program.

As cadets in Tuskegee's Air Force ROTC program, Allen and Woodard are knowledgeable about the legacy of their aviation predecessors, how their every move was scrutinized and that their success or failure would directly impact blacks in the military. In previous meetings with the famed aviators they describe being in awe as their role models told of their experiences. Although the missions are different, neither is blind to the impact this endeavor will have on those who follow in their footsteps, much in the same way as the Tuskegee Airmen affected them.

"I don't see it as a burden," Woodard said. "A lot of the same things they went through, we're going through. They were training to go to war and we're just training to be professional or military pilots. It's a different mission altogether but yet it's still similar."

"They came along and showed everybody that blacks could be fighter pilots," Allen said. "They had it set in stone that they could be as good if not better than everyone else. They put a lot of heart into everything in light of the adversity that they faced."

Traditionally, the military has been a pipeline by which commercial airlines receive qualified pilots. But as the number of military pilots decreases, airlines are looking at new ways to attract highly skilled pilots. But according to Dennis Kuhlman, dean of the College of Technology and Aviation, this partnership is not solely for training pilots but will also build leaders for the millennium.

"This partnership is two land-grant institutions working together for the common mission, which is to provide education to the world," Kuhlman said.

Winter 2002