During World War II, from June 1943 through April 1945, they flew 1,578 missions, 15,533 sorties, destroyed 261 aircraft and earned 850 medals. They were the Tuskegee Airmen, African-Americans who were members of the U.S. Army Air Corps, championed by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt yet segregated from the rest of the troops. Trained at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Ala., they were pilots, instructors, navigators and mechanics. Today, the National Business Aviation Association presents its highest award–the 2012 Meritorious Service to Aviation Award–to the Tuskegee Airmen.
“We are honored to present this award to these storied aviators, who in a time of great peril defended the United States and its principles, even as they faced intolerance at home,” said NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen. “The Tuskegee Airmen battled prejudice and segregation as effectively as they fought against the Axis forces over Europe, becoming one of the most highly decorated and respected fighter groups of World War II,” he continued. “They serve as an inspiration for anyone faced with adversity to overcome forces that limit their potential.”
George Lucas, the producer of the 2012 movie “Red Tails,” is participating in the ceremony. The aircraft the Tuskegee Airmen flew for bomber escort had red tails, and the bomber crews who relied on them for protection appreciatively called them “Red Tails.”
Scheduled to accept the award on behalf of the Tuskegee Airmen are U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Leo Gray and Lt. Col. Alexander Jefferson. NBAA said Gray began his combat flight training in 1943, ultimately flying 15 missions over Italy before leaving active duty in 1946. He remained active in the Air Force Reserves until his retirement in 1984. Forced to bail out on his 18th mission over Germany in August 1944, Jefferson was held as a prisoner of war until the end of hostilities in Europe. He later served as an instructor at Tuskegee Army Airfield. Following his retirement from the Air Force Reserves in 1969, Jefferson became a teacher and assistant principal in the Detroit public schools
A period-correct North American T-6 Texan training aircraft, painted in authentic Tuskegee squadron markings, as well as a “Rise Above” traveling exhibit is being featured on the static display outside the Orange County Convention Center. On Wednesday and Thursday the exhibit’s mobile theater will show a video presentation celebrating the group’s accomplishments and impact on aviation. Also, NBAA’s static display at Orlando Executive Airport is featuring a P-51 Mustang operated by the Tuskegee squadron.