Clustering Now More Than Ever
According to the Air Force’s Racial Disparity Review, “varying degrees of disparity were identified in apprehensions, criminal investigations, military justice, administrative separations, placement into occupational career fields, certain promotion rates, officer and civilian professional military educational development and some leadership opportunities.” As it pertains to the specific focus of this book, why would anyone who read this report have any reason to believe that these disparities would not also be discovered in the subjective evaluations of students in Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training (SUPT) or in follow-on evaluations for selections for fighter aircraft? How could disparities so expansive, directly “correlated” to race not impact minorities in SUPT?
In two previous books, I have called for the Air Force to make permanent the clustering of minority SUPT students. This Air Force has experimented with this process or implemented similar measures at least three times since the early ‘60s but has refused to incorporate the practice as standard operating procedure. I shared the Air Force’s previous instances of clustering in “Black Pilot”:
“As part of my interviews for this book, I interviewed Bill Norwood, a SUPT student in 1960. He explained that the Air Force understood the negative impacts of having a single black student in a class nearly 60 years ago and started the practice of clustering black students in pilot training:
Bill: A friend of mine who went to Selma after I did, and they had only one black in the training. They petitioned and got the situation where they would no longer send only one black to pilot training in Selma.
Ivan: Oh, wow.
Bill: They send two or more.
Recently I discovered another bit of the Air Force’s past history experimenting with clustering that also occurred in the early 1970s. F. E. Chuck Rich, Leon Johnson (now Brigadier General retired), and Tony Marshall gathered ‘facts and figures’ aimed at ‘convincing the USAF to have at least two minority pilots per class in UPT to assist with their assimilation into the Air Force. This proved to be a very effective training model, and the minority attrition rate dropped significantly.’ (Flying Beyond The Barrier Memoirs by Forty African American Airline Pilots, 2015)”
This past summer, I was contacted by the executive officer for the 19th Air Force Commander, Maj. Gen. Wills. The 19th Air Force mission is:
“19th Air Force is responsible for the training of more than 30,000 U.S. and allied students annually in numerous specialties ranging from aircrews, remotely piloted aircraft crews, air battle managers, weapons directors, Air Force Academy Airmanship programs, and survival, escape, resistance, and evasion Specialists. They execute operational-level command and control of all formal aircrew flying training missions within Air Education and Training Command.”
I was told by the executive officer that the 19th AF was considering assigning small clusters/groups of minority pilots and women together during SUPT and was using my book, “Black Pilot,” as a reference. I was asked about my source material for the concept of clustering. I directed them back to Lt. Gen. John D. Hopper Jr., who was an instructor pilot in the Air Force’s 1975 experiment and the first to tell me of its existence. Here’s an excerpt of what I wrote about clustering in “Black Ceiling”:
“…the Air Force tried an experiment in which it clustered six black pilot training students and several black instructor pilots at one base. It was an experiment because the typical practice at the time often resulted in a black student in a SUPT class by himself.
I learned about the experiment from former Air Education and Training Command Vice Commander, Lt Gen John Hopper. I later met Larry “Jet” Jackson, who was a member of this experiment, and he told me how successful the experiment was. He also shared the success in “Flying Beyond the Barrier”: “There were six black guys - Afro Americans - with fro' s in my 75-03 UPT class. That was done intentionally by the Air Force as an experiment in 1973 because of the high UPT attrition rates for blacks in the early 70's. All of us graduated.” (Flying Beyond The Barrier Memoirs by Forty African American Airline Pilots, 2015).
In my interview with Lt Gen Hopper, I asked if the successful graduation rate was:
“because black IPs looked the other way at discrepancies to help their minority brethren succeed, he said no. He said that, in fact, the black IPs were not matched with the black pilot candidates. He said that the reason the students were successful was that the black IPs served as role models, ‘faces that look like mine,’ and demonstrated to black pilot candidates that it could be done. He said that for minority pilots, the black IPs were ‘somebody you think you can approach to ask a question’ and for non-minority IPs ‘to turn to with their questions on how best to get through to minority students.’ He also stated that having black IPs in the ‘flight meetings,’ where they discussed how to help the students that were doing poorly, was part of the success. Lt Gen Hopper called the experiment a ‘built-in peer group’ to progress through pilot training.” (Thompson, 2016)
The black pilots in the clustering experiment in 1975 (Class 75-03) came from all the commissioning sources: USAFA, ROTC-HBCU, ROTC-large mainstream university, and OTS. All six pilots in UPT class 75-03 graduated, a 100% graduation rate at a time when black pilots were washing out at a rate of 56% (Thompson, 2016).
I couldn’t’ tell from my discussions with the executive officer if the Air Force had planned to cluster instructor pilots as well. As noted in the previous quote, part of the success of the clustering experiment in the 1970s also involved the clustering of minority instructor pilots, such as Lt. Gen. John Hopper.
In “Black Pilot,” I mentioned how members of the USAFA class of 1989 self-clustered at Vance Air Force Base. They all chose to be stationed together at Vance to give themselves a greater chance of success and because they felt having a black leader, in this case, the Wing Commander, Gen. Fig Newton, would contribute to that success. They coined the phrase “Have a Chance at Vance.”
Here are the reflections of one member of the self-clustered class at Vance:
“Besides being grouped together in higher numbers, having people of color in the command structure at each level, IP, Flt Comm, and in our case Wing CC ensured we had people to talk and also it made others accountable for their actions. USAFA ’89/Vance 90 Clustering Student (Andre Lewis)
Picture courtesy of Andre Lewis, 2nd row, fifth from left, with hand just above the “A” in VanceAFB.
Andre Lewis’ comments support the importance of not only clustering minority students but also some minority instructors/leaders. The students in this self-clustering effort achieved the same type of success as those in the 1975 clustering experiment. Specifically, 100% of the USAFA class of ’89 self-clustered students graduated. Moreover, I could see from survey responses that they also influenced the success of other minority students from other commissioning programs that were in training at Vance AFB at the same time.
I have not been able to determine if the Air Force has moved forward with the implementation of clustering. I heard through back channels that implementation of clustering might not be implemented because, to some in senior levels of the Air Force, it looked like segregation. As it was explained to me, the appearance of grouping the black students together was a bad look for the Air Force of 2021. Perhaps because the clustering experiment being studied was done in the 1970s, it brought up the connotations of segregation and race relations in the 1970s.
I’m spending so much time on this because I’m doing everything in my power to make a case for clustering minorities during Air Force pilot training. The previous Air Force Chief of Staff said that clustering would provide a built-in support network for minority pilot training students.
“The Air Force’s pilot shortage crisis offers ‘an opportunity for bold moves’ to build the service’s diversity while correcting the growing deficit in aviators, Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said Wednesday at the conclusion of a daylong summit on the problem. Those moves might include grouping minority pilot trainees together at flight school in order to have a built-in support system…” (Tirpak, 2018)
In “Black Pilot,” I share dozens of surveys from black male and female SUPT pilots. In many of these surveys, being the “only one” or feeling “alone” often surfaces as a concern. They also share that being the only one helps facilitate the myth that they are tokens or quotas only there due to affirmative action and not because of merit.
Clustering is essential now more than ever and not just because of its proven impact on reducing the washout rates of minority and women SUPT students. Racial tensions in America may have calmed a bit, but the rhetoric in the national media and in politics is higher than at any time I ever served in an Air Force uniform. If for no other reason, this is not the right time to scatter and isolate our minority pilot training students across SUPT classes. When I say scatter, I am referring to a previous Air Force practice of deliberately separating minority students, perhaps so that there could be more diversity in each class and valuing that over the individual well-being and success of the student. Here’s a quote from “Black Pilot”:
“Here is the perception of one SUPT student who reported that the Air Force did the reverse of clustering during his SUPT class with negative effects:
‘I believe it does, as there appears to be a ‘standard’ the courses are attempting to maintain. A quota if you will. I noticed the minorities (Blacks) in the classes, although starting at the same time, were spaced out accordingly in the classes to facilitate what appeared to be each class having at least one. This did affect how we perceived and received training believing we had to measure up to a higher standard.’
2001 Black Male SUPT Student”
If this Air Force practice of scattering minority students across SUPT classes was proven to be less beneficial to minority students as early as the 1960s, why on earth would the Air Force want to continue it now? It’s likely a stretch to make the physical safety of these students a concern. But now, perhaps more than ever, our black airmen need a safe place within the training environment to respond to, to process their feelings about the external and internal threats “threats” identified in the previous chapters.
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