The business and general aviation community collectively mourned the passing on Sunday of legendary Tuskegee Airman Brigadier General Charles E. McGee. He was 102.
McGee, who remained active and a visible member of the aviation community throughout his life, was a U.S. Army Air Force and U.S. Air Force pilot who served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. He flew a record 409 combat missions and achieved multiple honors, such as the Legion of Merit with Oak Leaf Cluster, Distinguished Flying Cross with two clusters, and two Presidential Unit Citations. He was known as a trailblazer who strived to pave a path for all aviators.
“General McGee’s accomplishments are so extraordinary as to be almost beyond belief,” said NBAA president and CEO Ed Bolen. “But even more impressive than all he did was the way in which he did it. He was the very personification of excellence, service, grace, humility, and dignity. To be in his presence was to be in the presence of greatness.”
Other members of the aviation community shared those sentiments. Pete Bunce, president and CEO of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA), called McGee “a true American hero and the kindest and most humble patriot I have ever known." Added Bunce, who is also a member of the Arsenal of Democracy Executive Committee, which honored McGee's service during the 2015 and 2020 commemorative flyovers: "His dedication and service to our nation went far beyond his time and distinction as a three-war combat fighter pilot. He has been a role model to so many of us and even into his centenarian years, he tirelessly promoted education and careers in aerospace to future generations.”
AOPA president and CEO Mark Baker, whose association last year honored McGee with the inaugural Brigadier General Charles E. McGee Aviation Inspiration Award, said: “He will always be known and treasured as a true inspirational American. We are very fortunate to have known General McGee and have had him in our lives.”
Born Dec. 7, 1919, in Cleveland, McGee established his mark as a leader with the Tuskegee Airmen, the Army Air Corps' first African-American fighter squadron—the 99th Flying Squadron that was named for the initial training the airmen received in Tuskegee, Alabama.
McGee trained in Boeing PT–17 Stearmans and later flew fighters that included the North American P–51 Mustang and Curtiss P–40 Warhawk. He flew 136 combat missions with the Tuskegee Airmen, according to AOPA, and flew a further 100 combat missions in the Korean War and 173 in the Vietnam War.
Beyond his service, John Cudahy, president of the International Council of Air Shows and also an Arsenal of Democracy Executive Committee member, noted that McGee “helped put a face on the triumphs, sacrifice, and patriotism of the people who helped to win World War II while also serving as a source of motivation and inspiration for the tens of thousands who heard him speak about his time as a Tuskegee Airman.”
NBAA noted that McGee was a key supporter of the Commemorative Air Force’s Rise Above initiative, which highlights the stories of the Tuskegee Airmen and the Women Air Force Service Pilots to help inspire future generations.
In addition to participating in the Arsenal of Democracy festivities honoring the 70th and 75th anniversaries of the end of World War II, McGee would travel to events such as EAA AirVenture—including just this past year—and worked in partnership with the various associations.
NBAA helped celebrate McGee’s 99th birthday with a flight in Virginia captained by Jet It founder and CEO Glenn Gonzales, and for his 100th birthday AOPA celebrated with McGee with a flight in a Cirrus Vision Jet from Frederick, Maryland, to Delaware, where he was greeted by more than 100 U.S. Air Force personnel at Dover Air Force Base, the association noted. McGee flew that flight and AOPA senior photographer David Tulis, who was on board, said, "The landing was like butter. You barely knew it happened.”
AOPA’s Baker was on hand for the 102nd birthday celebration at Randolph Air Force Base in Texas.