The "Air Force's Black Ceiling" is a view of diversity in the Air Force from one man's over 28 years in the Air Force. This view begins with his perspectives and insights as an Air Force Academy cadet and continues with his progression through company and field grade ranks. It also includes special insights gained while serving on the Secretary of Defense's Diversity Task Force as the Deputy Director of the Defense Business Practice Implementation Board. The author's view of diversity has been bolstered by face to face interviews with five former African American Air Force four-star generals and numerous current and former African American generals in the Air Force and the Army. The author's views are also influenced by numerous discussions with former graduates of the US Air Force Academy, his work with the Tuskegee Airmen chapters and his own detailed research into the biographies of former Air Force Chiefs of Staff and former Strategic, Tactical and Air Combat Command Commanders. The title might imply that the "Black Ceiling" has been put in place on purpose by senior Air Force leaders... the reader will find out that isn't the case. The reader however will find out that there are very distinct remnants of an intricate system of exclusionary development practices, cultural practices, stereotypes and biases that have served to keep the ceiling in place for African American men throughout the Air Force's existence.
Ivan Thompson is the CEO of Launch Productions. He is a singer/songwriter, actor, author, business consultant, and inventor. He is a retired Air Force officer with five adult children. Ivan’s books have garnered rave reviews and are available on most major retailer websites. Ivan has published multiple Christian titles and two exceptional books about diversity in the Air Force, a fitness book, and a book to help new writers become published authors. Several of Ivan’s books are also available in Spanish. Most of Ivan’s titles are also available as audiobooks on Audible.com.
Ivan has over 25 years of consulting senior military and civilian leaders. He has conducted senior leadership off-sites, strategic planning sessions, and served as the Deputy Director of the Defense Business Practice Implementation Board. As the Deputy, he helped facilitate and lead Task Groups for the Secretary of Defense comprised of senior DoD civilians and retired and active Fortune 500 CEOs. Ivan was most recently a member of the national touring cast of The Color Purple.
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The Air Force’s Black Ceiling
What sparked this book?
In 1986 I was a black graduate of the United States Air Force Academy (USAFA). I remember being deeply disturbed by the extremely low number of my black classmates that made it through the initial phase of pilot training, referred to as Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT), or more specifically, went on to become fighter pilots. As USAFA cadets we were conditioned to believe that being a pilot was everything, which was further emphasized by a common USAFA saying: “If you ain’t a fighter pilot you ain’t…” I will leave you to fill in the blank. Unfortunately, very few of my black classmates were making it through (UPT). Further I didn’t know anybody who made it through pilot training that got a fighter pilot assignment afterward. This poor showing in UPT—this failure phenomenon— was evident across the entire spectrum of my black classmates. It spanned the jocks, the “stract”/ultra-military guys, the militant guys, the too-cool-for-school guys, and the playboys. Now, with only 66 black people in a graduating class of 961, it wasn’t hard to track their status. I noticed the same thing in the class that graduated before me and the class that graduated after me. I wasn’t a pilot. I’d lost my pilot qualification, known as PQ, because of a serious back injury that occurred when I was a freshman. But for some reason though it really bothered me that so few of the black grads I knew seemed to be making it through UPT and that none of the ones that made it through were getting fighters. How was it that so many of my black pilot qualified classmates had failed to become what the Air Force Academy had conditioned us to dream of becoming—a fighter pilot?
As a young Air Force officer serving on active duty, I didn’t have an explanation for this phenomenon, but some of my fellow black grads had an explanation. I had heard of their disappointments firsthand or through the grapevine. Their explanation: The Air Force was racist. Plain and simple. Though the accusation is direct and believable I refused to accept that explanation, then and now. I am not naïve; I know that there are racist individuals. In fact, as a former cadet and an officer, I personally could share individual racist encounters. However I never believed that there was a systematic, institutional, pervasive effort to “wash out” black pilots. But the fact that I didn’t have any other explanation whatsoever to counter that charge disturbed me even more. I was compelled to find the answers.
Though I didn’t realize it, the quest to find answers began as a USAFA cadet. As a cadet I researched the history of black Cadet Wing Commanders. I interviewed the one that we had while I was there. I studied how he and other senior cadets were selected. Later during my first active duty assignment at Headquarters (HQ) Air Force Communications Command I took an interest in studying the career paths of the senior officers. After six years of tracking the promotion and advancement patterns of those officers, I had become proficient at predicting who would be promoted to the Command’s most senior posts based on their previous assignments. I did the same thing in a later assignment at Langley Air Force Base. My analysis had become convincingly accurate. While at Langley I told my new wing commander when he would be leaving for a new assignment. He was not amused by my determination, but I pegged it to the month. I didn’t know why I was studying career paths of senior officers, but I always had a curious desire to study how leaders are picked. From my research I began to understand as a senior captain that most of the people who would reach four-star general rank in the Air Force would be fighter pilots and that anyone who was not a fighter pilot really didn’t have much chance of attaining three-star rank.
The Air Force’s mission to “Fly Fight and Win” clearly implies that the Air Force places a premium on developing fighter pilots. However, the glaring absence of black fighter pilots bothered me.
While on two duty assignments at fighter bases, I began to get an idea of what the longer-term impact of not having black fighter pilots in the Air Force would look like. These fighter bases had an all-white senior leadership and mid-level leadership. Consequently, all the portraits on the walls of all the previous senior leaders were white. It was as if there was an unspoken message that black men either didn’t belong in these settings or they were incapable of it. That unspoken message was so loud in my ears. It gnawed at me and pursued me. Perhaps because in the staff meetings I was often the only black officer in the room even as a captain and it was as if the whole room, the walls, the very air whispered loudly, “And you won’t ever be one of these senior leaders either!” This motivated me even more to get answers.
In 2003, I got what I believe was the opportunity of a lifetime as the civilian Deputy Director of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s Defense Business Board. I was allowed to participate as a member of a Task Group chartered to develop recommendations for increasing the number of Minority Flag (general) officers and senior civilians in DoD. The Defense Business Board’s charter was to go out into industry and bring back the industry’s best practices to improve Department of Defense (DoD) operations. The Board was comprised primarily of high-level senior executives (active and retired CEOs) from the private sector. It was my job to facilitate and occasionally participate in their Task Groups. In one of our initial meetings, I got the opportunity to speak with Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, Dr. David S. C. Chu, about increasing the number of minority generals in the Air Force. I told him it was simple. The way to increase the number of minority four-star generals was to increase the number of minority fighter pilots—as most of the Air Force four-star generals at that time were fighter pilots. I was given the opportunity to lead a good portion of the research on increasing minority flag officers in the Air Force and was fortunate enough to be granted access to many of the Air Force’s black general officers and the Air Force’s personnel data on pilot accessions and attrition. When the Army and Navy found out about the study, I was asked by several senior Army and Navy officers, active and retired, to interview them. I was also given the opportunity to participate in or lead interviews with several companies, such as Delta Airlines, McDonalds, and American Express, that had won national acclaim for their success with their employee diversity strategy.
What I found in my research further opened my eyes. The civilian companies had found ways to increase diversity at the most senior levels. I found that by using similar measures; the Air Force could increase the number of minority pilots, fighter pilots and general officers. However, I ran headlong into some disturbing stereotypes and resistance to implementing these measures. I packaged all of the research that I did on the Air Force and the Army, and the accompanying recommendations in a military annex to the final Task Group report. However the annex, along with all of its recommendations, was excluded from the report that was provided to the Secretary of Defense. The Task Group leader felt that minorities were already “appropriately represented” in the Air Force and Army’s senior ranks based on their college graduation rates. The Defense Business Board’s Director also felt the inclusion of the Air Force/ Army-specific recommendations would make the report “too long” and that the broad recommendations in the report were sufficient. (Defense Business Board, 2004)
This unfortunate decision only made me more determined to try to get the recommendations into the hands of anyone who could make a difference. I sought out a former Deputy Undersecretary of the Air Force for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, I met with all the retired African American four-star generals, national leaders of the Tuskegee Airmen organization, and I wrote Gen. Colin Powell all to no avail. There was no way to get the recommendations seen by the senior leadership of the Air Force. I left the Defense Business Board and returned to near full-time active duty status as an officer in the Air Force Reserve.
It is now, only nearly six years after retirement from the Air Force that I have renewed my passion for completing the research.
Why am I writing this book?
First and foremost I am writing this book because I felt like I had to. Inside me there was a tug, almost a compulsion to share the things that I observed as it pertains to why we don’t have more black fighter pilots and black general officers who are fighter pilots. I almost began to feel that it would be irresponsible to withhold the truths that I had discovered while other erroneous explanations were being put forth. At the same time, however, I was being held back from writing the book because of fears: fear of how I might be perceived and who would be offended. However, this book kept talking to me. It would not leave me alone. I am writing this book because I believe there are people like me who want to know why we don’t have more black fighter pilots and black fighter pilot general officers. I’m writing this book because I believe I have new insights, new data to share on the issue that will enlighten those who are unfamiliar with the issue, and possibly change the positions of those who think they know why there aren’t more black fighter pilots. It’s a complex issue, and there are complex, but not impossible solutions. This book is a mixture of the anecdotal and the empirical, it contains stories from people I have talked to in the last 33 years and data that I gathered on my own or as the Deputy Director of the Defense Business Board working on a diversity study for the Secretary of Defense.
Why Am I Writing This Book Now?
I started writing this book in 2011, but I know that I did not finish it again in part because I wanted to avoid the controversy that I anticipated would accompany the release of this book. I was afraid of the perception that my non-minority classmates might have. I was afraid that they would see me as an “angry black man” who somehow all these years had held onto a hidden racist perception of the Air Force. Or that people who didn’t know me would think that I was some recently retired Air Force officer who had a mediocre career (Lieutenant Colonel) and was carrying a grudge for not making a more senior rank. Nothing could be further from the truth. I loved my time in the Air Force. The Air Force is a great institution with great people and great leaders—it is truly a great way of life. With that being said, I know it could be better and improvement in the areas addressed in this book will make the Air Force better. I am aware that those who are convinced that the Air Force is racist might not like what I share in this book. Despite all my inner conflicts over how I might be perceived, how my love of the Air Force might be questioned, I knew that I had to finish this book. I know that my white classmates need to see that a fellow Air Force officer who served alongside them in the Air Force might have an entirely different view on the answer to the question of why are there so few black fighter pilots.
Who Am I Writing This Book For?
It dawned on me at my 20th Air Force Academy reunion in 2006 that my non-minority classmates had grown up in their careers to be relatively senior leaders (Colonels, Wing, Vice-Wing and Operations Group Commanders) in an Air Force with relatively no black fighter pilots. I wondered, how they had explained this lack of diversity to themselves. We used to joke at the Academy that black people couldn’t swim because of their disproportionate numbers in remedial swimming. Could my white classmates’ Air Force experience cause them to think black people can’t swim…and black people can’t fly? More black fighter pilots served in the Air Force during World War II than at any time in my 24-year Air Force career. The Tuskegee “experiment” produced over 900 black pilots, approximately 680 single-engine or fighter pilots and 245 multi-engine or bomber pilots (Tuskegee Airmen Inc. Ron Brewington, 2009). There were 542 fighter pilots across all minority pilot groups at the time I was commissioned in 1986. That number dwindled to less than 200 in 2003 when the data was gathered (HQ USAF Directorate of Personnel, 2003). The Tuskegee Airmen served so long ago. How could my classmates, the Air Force’s next generation of senior leaders, likely know much about them or relate to their experience?
Even further is it possible to lose every aspect of what made the Tuskegee Airmen so exceptional when the last Tuskegee Airmen passes away and joins the ranks of what they call the Lonely Eagles? Sure their legacy would live on and the Air Force has done some great things to ensure that. But is it possible that the notion of black fighter pilots could be forgotten amongst our future Air Force leaders with no tangible explanation for why it was possible to successfully produce black fighter pilots in WWII but not now, nearly 75 years later?
This book is an effort to stir the pot again in hopes that the Air Force’s senior leadership, my former classmates, will consider a change in direction from the unsuccessful diversity approaches the Air Force has attempted thus far. A few of my classmates have attained lieutenant general rank. They are becoming the senior leaders of the Air Force. I sincerely hope to influence them and other future Air Force leaders, especially in the fighter pilot community, to re-examine their own explanations for the lack of black fighter pilots.
One of the purposes of this book is also to show my white classmates that there is a different view, to give them insight into how a black person in the same Air Force might look at the same situation in a totally different manner. Armed with this insight it is my sincere hope that different decisions might be made as it pertains to changing the diversity landscape of the fighter pilot demographic. This insight is essential for the four-stars of the year 2020 so that the Air Force won’t be as divided as the rest of the nation when it comes to matters of race. It is only when we understand each other’s perspective that pulling down the walls that divide majority and minority cultures is possible. Minorities in many ways are forced into understanding majority points of view and values--it is a must to survive in majority culture. It is not however true that those in the majority must take the time to understand minority viewpoints. It is an investment of time that is critical if my white classmates are to grasp why people that are different may think differently and how it may affect their performance, career decisions, perceptions of sincerity and fairness and they degree of trust that they will extend to those of the majority culture.
The final motivation to get the book done was for the Tuskegee Airmen. I really didn’t know that much about them until 2004. Sadly, we weren’t told that much about the Tuskegee Airmen at the United States Air Force Academy. We never had quotes or statistics related to their accomplishments in our famous required memory drills as freshmen. What we didn’t know about this accomplished group of airmen could fill a warehouse and change the landscape and tenor of Air Force history:
• The Tuskegee Airmen had one of the greatest combat flying records in Air Force history. (AF News Service MSgt Linda E. Brandon, n.d.)
• They had won the Air Force’s first “Top Gun-like” aerial competition for propeller aircraft. (National Museum of the US Air Force, 2015)
• One of Tuskegee Airmen, Gen. Chappie James, served with great distinction right alongside legendary Air Force hero Robin Olds as Vice Wing Commander of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing. “Chappie flew 78 combat missions over North Vietnam. On one mission he led a flight in the Bolo MIG sweep in which seven MIG 21s were destroyed—the highest total MIG kill of any mission during the war.” (The National Aviation Hall of Fame, n.d.) (US Air Force Biographies, 1978)
• Col. Charles McGee is the only fighter pilot in Air Force history to have 100 or more combat missions in each of three different wars—WWII, Korea and Vietnam. His total of 409 combat sorties is among the highest for any fighter pilot ever. (Haulman, 2015)