Talent, Training and the Red Tails

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First class of Tuskegee Airmen (1941) First class of Tuskegee Airmen (1941)

Photo: Air Force

As we thought about how to recognize and honor the accomplishments of African Americans during Black History month, we decided to focus on one of our most successful World War II units, the Tuskegee Airmen.

Despite significant obstacles, Tuskegee’s pilots, maintainers and other operations support personnel enjoyed significant combat success in Europe, leaving an indelible mark on U.S. military history.

The National Defense Industrial Association continues to honor their service with its strategic focus on workforce and innovation.

All military organizations depend on three foundational components to deliver military effectiveness: personnel, training and equipment. They thrive when they recruit from the broadest pool of talent available; provide recruits with competent and practical instruction; and equip highly-trained personnel with reliable, innovative gear. Fighting for a “double victory” for freedom abroad and at home, the Tuskegee Airmen provide a case study example for this recipe because they enjoyed all three ingredients: immense talent, great training and cutting-edge equipment.

Despite a long and distinguished history of military valor, African Americans faced endemic prejudice in the armed services during the interwar years. An influential 1925 U.S. Army War College report baldly asserted African Americans were “inferior” to white men. While the report was “Unclassified” the Army handled it as though it was “Secret,” possibly because the War College could not prove its specious claims the “…negro officer was a failure as a combat officer in [World War I].”

Given this assessment, it’s no surprise the report recommended limiting African American participation in combat units, and when “experimenting” with such units, they should be segregated and led by white officers.

Overcoming this institutional bias in the late 1930s, African Americans won inclusion in an expanded civilian pilot training program. Responding both to war mobilization needs and lobbying from black civil rights groups, President Franklin Roosevelt announced the Army Air Corps would train black pilots. Recruits from all over the country traveled to Alabama, in the heart of the Jim Crow South, to train at the Tuskegee Institute as pilots, navigators, bombardiers, instructors, aircraft and engine mechanics, control tower operators and other maintenance and support staff. Nearly all college graduates or students, they matched talent and patriotism with a strong desire to prove doubters wrong.

"We are inspired by the service and success of these remarkable Americans."

They benefited from exceptional training, led by Charles Alfred “Chief” Anderson. In the late 1920s, Anderson learned to fly by buying his own airplane. After teaching himself to take off and land, he bartered use of his plane for instruction during cross-country flights.

Taking advantage of every opportunity, he eventually became the first African American to earn an air transport license. In 1940, Tuskegee recruited him as the chief civilian flight instructor for its new program to train black pilots, positioning him to ultimately become ground commander and chief instructor for aviation cadets at the 99th Pursuit Squadron. When he successfully took First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt on a 40-minute flight around Alabama, the subsequent publicity helped convince President Roosevelt to deploy the Tuskegee Airmen downrange. 

They also took advantage of new technology. The Tuskegee Airmen deployed in April 1943 and in July 1944 received a new aircraft, the P-51B Mustang, which they would differentiate from other aircraft by painting the tails red. The P-51’s tactical advantages over competing aircraft helped it earn the reputation as the plane that “won the war.”

P-51 development stemmed from a U.K. requirement given to North American Aviation (NAA). However, instead of building Curtiss P-40 fighters, an old design from another company, NAA designed and produced a more modern fighter. With assistance from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NASA’s predecessor, NAA developed and implemented a series of innovations and fielded variants that reduced drag and improved handling, increased horsepower and top speed, raised the service ceiling and greatly increased the aircraft’s range.

Finally, NAA designed the P-51 for mass production, to ensure Allied forces benefited from quantity as well as quality. The numerical superiority of the fighters, superb flying characteristics of the P-51, and pilot proficiency helped cripple the Luftwaffe’s fighter force at the end of WWII. The P-51s flown by the highly-trained, proficient Tuskegee Airmen played a key role in reducing the German fighter threat to U.S. bombers by 1944.

The Tuskegee Airmen left a remarkable legacy. The effectiveness of Tuskegee Airmen in combat likely played a role in President Harry S. Truman’s decision to desegregate the U.S. military in 1948.

Several Tuskegee Airmen would go on to serve as high-ranking U.S. Air Force officers. The combination of smart, talented, highly-trained pilots, maintainers and other support personnel coupled with innovative equipment created a force that overcame prejudice to achieve significant operational success and ultimately provided the nation with a better, more effective fighting force.

We are inspired by the service and success of these remarkable Americans. As NDIA celebrates 100 years of advocating for our warfighters, we continue to develop programming, organize events and engage policy makers to ensure the military attracts, develops and retains the best talent; provides that talent with outstanding training; and equips that talent with the leading-edge capabilities.

Hawk Carlisle is NDIA president and CEO, Wesley Hallman its senior vice president of policy and Rachel McCaffrey, executive director of NDIA affiliate, Women In Defense.

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