Black History Month brings Tuskegee Airmen to Fantasy of Flight

POLK CITY, Fla. — For the fifth year, Fantasy of Flight will once again welcome the Tuskegee Airmen when it kicks off its 2013 Legends & Legacies Symposium Series Thursday, Feb. 7, through Saturday, Feb. 9. The attraction will celebrate Black History Month not only by hosting a three-day limited engagement event called “They Dared to Fly” featuring several surviving Tuskegee Airmen, but also by sponsoring its third annual student essay contest in which students are encouraged to write about the values of leadership, excellence, advocacy and determination (LEAD) embodied by the Tuskegee pilots.

“They Dared to Fly” is scheduled to feature several open-forum/question-and-answer sessions as well as meet/greet autograph signings with five of the original Tuskegee Airmen. Of the original group of nearly 1,000 trained pilots and 15,000 ground personnel that made up the Tuskegee Airmen, roughly 40 pilots and 200 ground crew are alive today. In 2007, President George W. Bush awarded the surviving Airmen the Congressional Gold Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest civilian award.

For the first time, the event will be moderated by pilot and educator Barrington Irving. Raised in Miami’s inner city, surrounded by crime, poverty, and failing schools, he beat the odds to become the youngest person and only African American ever to fly solo around the world. He built a plane himself, made his historic flight, graduated magna cum laude from an aeronautical science program, and founded an educational nonprofit Experience Aviation to boost the numbers of youth in aviation and other science and math related careers — all before the age of 28.

The impact of the Tuskegee Airmen on his career was profound, Irving said. “The Tuskegee Airmen’s legacy is one that we should never forget. Early on in my career, I had the opportunity to work with Lieutenant Colonel Leo Gray and a local Airmen’s chapter in Miami. These men were a great inspiration to me. They had fought two wars — one for their country and another for equality and respect when they got back home. They are my heroes.”

Fantasy of Flight’s permanent multi-media Tuskegee Airmen exhibit and vintage aircraft collection, including the P-51C Mustang “Red Tail” provides the backdrop for this opportunity for the symposium. Scheduled to appear at one or more of the symposiums are: George E. Hardy, Leo. R. Gray, Daniel Keel and Charles E.McGee. Symposium events are included in the attraction’s general admission price and are free for annual pass holders.

In tribute to the Tuskegee, students in grades 6-12 are invited to participate in the “They Dared to Fly” essay contest. Using the principles of LEAD (leadership, excellence, advocacy and determination), students should describe how the Tuskegee Airmen achieved success or describe how they can use these values to achieve a personal goal of their own.

Required essay length for students in grades 6-8 is 350 words; 500 words for students in grades 9-12. Entries will be judged on overall content, including spelling, grammar, punctuation, legibility and penmanship (as applicable). First place winners in each of two categories (grades 6-8 and 9-12) will take home $500; two second place winners each will receive $300. The deadline for the essay contest is 5 p.m., Feb. 22, 2013. Winners will be announced March 8.

Students and student groups can attend the symposium Feb. 7-9 and use the information they learn to write their essays. Special rates are available for student groups. For more information:

The following Tuskegee Airmen are scheduled to appear at one or more of the symposiums:

George E. Hardy (Sarasota, Fla.) – George E. Hardy entered military service in July 1943, and graduated as a pilot with the Tuskegee Airmen in September 1944. He was shipped overseas in February 1945 and flew twenty-one (21) combat missions over Germany. He continued his military career with service in Korea and Vietnam and retired in November 1971 with the rank of Lt. Colonel. His decorations include: the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with eleven (11) Oak Leaf Clusters, and the Commendation Medal with one (1) Oak Leaf Cluster.

Leo. R. Gray (Ft. Lauderdale, Fla.) – After completing the College Training Detachment Program at Tuskegee Institute, Gray entered aviation cadet training to become a pilot. He graduated from the Tuskegee Army Air Field Flying School as a 2nd Lieutenant and was stationed in Italy as a fighter pilot with the 100th Fighter Squadron, 332nd Fighter Group. He flew 15 combat missions over Europe before separating from active duty in 1946. During his 41 years of military service, Lt. Col. Gray was awarded the Air Medal with one Oak Leaf Cluster, a Presidential Unit Citation, and the Mediterranean Theatre of Operation ribbon with three Battle Stars.

Daniel Keel (Orlando, Fla.) Keel was a junior studying aeronautical engineering at Northeastern University when he was drafted in 1943. Although he earned his wings as a pilot and navigator in the Tuskegee program, the war ended before Keel’s 477th Bombardment Group (Medium) saw action. He left the military in 1946 and secured a commercial pilot’s license, although a black man would not be allowed to pilot a major commercial airline for nearly 20 years. Instead, he started an electrical contracting firm and is now retired.

Charles E. McGee (Bethesda, Maryland)- McGee was studying engineering at the University of Illinois when he enlisted in the U.S. Army, became a part of the Tuskegee Airmen and earned his pilot’s wings in June 1943. McGee flew 137 combat missions before returning to the United States in Dec. 1944 as a Captain. He served as a pilot in both the Korean War and the Vietnam War, completing more than 270 more missions. In a 30-year active service career, he achieved the highest three-war fighter mission total, 409 fighter combat missions, of any Air Force aviator. McGee retired on Jan. 1973 as a Colonel and ended his military career with 6,308 flying hours. He was recognized for his combat and military service with a number of awards including: Distinguished Flying Cross with two Oak Leaf Clusters, Legion of Merit with one Oak Leaf Cluster, Bronze Star, and numerous other awards. In 2011, he was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio. He also served as a consultant to the 2012 George Lucas film, “Red Tails.”

The six topics scheduled for this month’s symposiums include: “They Dared to Fly: Featuring the Tuskegee Airmen” in honor of National Black History Month, Feb. 7-9; “Beyond the Battlefield,” March 8-9; “The First World War,” April 6; “D-Day: Normandy & Beyond,” May 3-4; “Espionage: The Cold War,” Oct. 4-5 and “Veteran’s Day Salute: A Celebration of Service,” Nov. 9-10.

Symposium events are included in the price of Fantasy of Flight general admission and are free for annual pass holders. General admission is $29.95 for adults, $27.95 for seniors ages 55 and over and $15.95 for children, ages 6-12, plus 7 percent sales tax. Children five and under are free with full paying adult.


  1. Ron Brewington says

    Greetings…I’m Ron Brewington, Tuskegee Airmen Historian…In paragraph 2, I noted two errors in the article:
    1. Sentence 2 – “…roughly 40 pilots and 200 ground crew are alive today.” – Not true – Of the 992 pilots (fighter and bomber) and estimated 13,000 ground crew, no one knows how many of these persons are still alive. The 992 pilots included 673 single engine (SE) pilots, 252 twin engine (TE) pilots, 5 Haitian pilots, 11 Instructor pilots and 51 Liaison pilots. 355 SE pilots went overseas for combat, and of that number, there was an attempt to find out how many of the fighter or “Red Tail” pilots are still living. It was an estimated 40 pilots. But when you say Tuskegee Airmen pilots, you cannot leave out those single engine pilots who graduated after Class 44I and didn’t go overseas for combat and the bomber pilots (who never went into combat) along with the ground support personnel for which an accurate count is impossible to make.

    Sentence 3 – “In 2007, President George W. Bush awarded the surviving Airmen..” Not true – On March 29, 2007 President George W. Bush presented collectively, not individually, the Congressional Gold Medal (CGM) to 300 Tuskegee Airmen and widows who had assembled for a ceremony in the Rotunda of the U. S. Capitol. Those present at the ceremony represented all of the estimated 16,000 participants (both living and deceased) of the “Tuskegee Experience” (1941-1949) which included pilots (fighter and bomber), navigators, bombardiers, crew chiefs, mechanics, gunners, secretaries, cooks, dentists, doctors, nurses, etc. – Please note that due to the physical limitations of the Rotunda, only 300 Tuskegee Airmen and widows were invited to the ceremony.

    • KENN PENMAN says

      Can you think of a more stupid question, Otto? Otto Keesling? Hmmm, sounds a bit Fascist to me….perhaps you have a “party brown shirt” someplace in your closet. ja?

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