They dared to fly

For three days in early February the south hangar at Fantasy of Flight in Polk City, Florida, was packed with visitors. They were seated in long rows of folding chairs, and stood on the gleaming painted hangar floor. Everyone faced the raised platform near the eastern wall, paying rapt attention to the reminiscing of three elderly gentlemen who had remarkable tales to tell.

This was the first installment of the 2012 Legends and Legacies symposium series at the central Florida aviation-themed attraction. “They Dared to Fly” focused on the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, and to tell that story accurately, three graduates of the program sat at the dais and shared their memories and experiences during two sessions each day.

Two of the participants, Leo Gray and Daniel Keel, both grew up in Boston. Their personal histories are intertwined tightly enough that they belonged to the same Boy Scout troop as kids. A few years later they were both members of a controversial government program to verify whether men of color had what it takes to become military pilots. They did.

Leo Gray, 91, (left) and Daniel Keel, 89, enjoy a peaceful moment before stepping onto the dais to speak about their experiences as Tuskegee Airmen.

“The Tuskegee Airmen was made up of men who were intelligent, who had a good education, and worked hard,” Kell said.

His simple explanation may be the most succinct and accurate representation of a group who have become true legends in our time.

The original program and its participants went by various names. Many of the tags hung on them were derogatory. They referred to themselves simply as pilots. Yet, by the 1970s the term Tuskegee Airmen had become the designator of choice, and the men who had been a part of that first test group became celebrities of sorts. Their success has become a badge of honor, one that was hard won and well deserved. Now, almost 70 years after their entry into the ranks of the officer corps of the US military, the remaining veterans tell their stories in the hopes that younger generations will benefit from the lessons they can teach.

The two old friends, Gray and Keel, both underwent the training program at Tuskegee and went on to fly. Gray piloted a P-51C in combat over Europe, participating in 15 combat mission before the war ended. Keel became a B-25 pilot and remained in the states. In addition to being a pilot he also qualified as a bombardier and a navigator.

George Hardy, who was the third speaker at the symposium, came through Tuskegee in a class shortly behind Gray’s. Still a teenager when he graduated as a 2nd Lieutenant and a pilot, Hardy had experience in multiple aircraft, including the PT-19, AT-6, P-40, and P-47. In a turn of events that would be totally foreign to a class of fighter pilots today, Hardy recalls, “Members of my class realized that I had never driven an automobile.” His classmates remedied that gap in George’s education by teaching him to drive a classmate’s long, sleek LaSalle with a stick shift on the floor. “I drove it back to the barracks…that was the first time I’d driven an automobile.”

The movie “Red Tails,” now in theaters, is shining a spotlight on the Tuskegee Airmen.

Hardy went on to fly combat missions as a fighter pilot in World War II, as a B-29 pilot in Korea, and as a AC-119 gunship pilot in Viet Nam. He retired from the U.S. Air Force with the rank of Lt. Colonel.

While the Tuskegee Airmen came into the war as an experiment, they closed out the war with a record of accomplishments that earned them a permanent place in American history. Their road was not an easy one, and for many decades their accomplishments were unknown.

“In the 70s, no one knew who we were,” Gray acknowledges.

That gap in America’s awareness has been remedied for the most part in the intervening years. Perhaps the pinnacle of recognition for the surviving Tuskegee Airmen came about on March 29, 2007, when President George W. Bush saluted a gathering of the Tuskegee Airmen.

“I would like to offer a gesture to help atone for all the unreturned salutes and unforgivable indignities,” the president said. “And so, on behalf of the office I hold, and a country that honors you, I salute you for the service to the United States of America.”

Leo Gray was present at that ceremony and remembers it well. “For the President of the United States to salute your organization, that’s quite an honor.”

It is an honor indeed. A well deserved one that was hard fought and well earned.

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