The Great Pilot Myth
Myth /miTH/ noun
1. a traditional story, especially one concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events. ancient Celtic myths”
Similar: folk tale, story, folk story, legend, tale, fable, saga, allegory, parable, tradition, lore, folklore
2. a widely held but false belief or idea.
“he wants to dispel the myth that sea kayaking is too risky or too strenuous”
Similar: misconception, fallacy, mistaken belief, false notion, misbelief
What is the “great pilot” myth? The great pilot myth was birthed in some long-forgotten version of an Air Force pilot diversity study eons ago. Like any great myth, its power lies in its ability to be preserved as it is retold in every successive generation. Evidence of the great pilot myth’s staying power is its presence in the Air Force’s recent Racial Disparity Review (RDR).
The great pilot myth implies that if more black people became pilots, many of the Air Force’s disparities would be fixed. It goes on to suggest that if we could just find enough “quality” minorities in the available population, we could put them into pilot training. Then they’d graduate and have developmental and command opportunities, promotions, and rise to the highest levels of position and authority in the Air Force. They’d have the same experiences and results as their white counterparts. In Hollywood, we’d call that “a happy ending.” Hundreds of years ago, impossible and unrealistic happy endings were called “fairy tales.” Even farther back in time, they’d be called “fables.” In ancient times we’d call them “myths.”
Let’s start debunking the great pilot myth by looking back in history at the Tuskegee Airmen. The Tuskegee Airmen have been rightfully heralded as the greatest group of black combat fighter pilots the Air Force has ever seen.
“How many Tuskegee airmen were there? Among the pilots in the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bombardment Group of the United States Army Air Forces, there were a total of 932 pilots who graduated from the program. Among these, 355 served in active duty during World War Two as fighter pilots. Sixty-six Tuskegee Airmen died in combat. Overall, The Tuskegee Airmen destroyed 251 enemy airplanes and were awarded a total of 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses for their service.” https://www.historyonthenet.com/how-many-tuskegee-airmen-were-there
The Tuskegee Airmen won the propeller portion of the Air Force’s first “Top Gun” competition in 1949 and likely would have swept the competition if a late rule change didn’t facilitate a change to allow white pilots to have an advantage. American Veterans Center. (2020, May 19). ‘Tuskegee Top Gun’ James Harvey, the First African American Jet Combat Pilot. Retrieved from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VqA1ihi_0MU)
Tuskegee Airman Brigadier General Charles E. McGee had one of the Air Force’s greatest combat flying records with “100 or more sorties in three different wars WWII, Korea, and Vietnam, a combined 409 in all.” (Source AFBLK Ceiling)
The Air Force’s own history tells us that the great pilot happy ending is a myth. The Tuskegee Airmen had one of the greatest combat flying records of any group of pilots (black or white) in Air Force history--in arguably America’s greatest wartime conflict. Yet the vast majority of these men never realized the commensurate developmental, educational, command, and promotion opportunities promised by the myth. Even for the most celebrated of them, their greatest recognition was realized outside of the Air Force, through a back door, a back channel. (See my books “The Air Force’s Black Ceiling” and “The Air Force’s Black Pilot State of the Union”)
The Tuskegee Airmen were never recognized, celebrated, or put on a “fast track” because of their win of the Top Gun trophy. In fact, the trophy was “lost” for fifty years until someone outside Air Force channels did painstaking research and inquiries. It was found in some back corner of the Air Force Museum. The myth proved untrue for them. American Veterans Center. (2020, May 19). ‘Tuskegee Top Gun’ James Harvey, the First African American Jet Combat Pilot. Retrieved from YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VqA1ihi_0MU)
Tuskegee Airman Charles McGee had one of the greatest combat records for any fighter pilot in Air Force history:
“Col McGee is the only person in Air Force history to fly over 100 combat missions in three major wars: 136 in World War II, 100 Korea and 173 in Vietnam, a total of 409. He was a three-time squadron commander, a Chief Maintenance for a fighter Wing, a base commander and the first African-American officer to command a stateside Wing after desegregation:
o Commander, 44th Fighter-Bomber Squadron, Commander, 7230th Support Squadron (Jupiter Missile support), Commander, 16th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron
o Commander of Gioia del Colle Air Base, Chief of Maintenance, 50th Tactical Fighter Wing
o Commander, Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base (Commanded Wing and Base)
Col McGee is also a highly decorated combat leader and commanded a flying unit in Vietnam. He had a distinguished 30-year career, and his decorations include the Legion of Merit with Oak Leaf Cluster, Distinguished Flying Cross with Two Clusters, Bronze Star, Air Medal with 25 Clusters.” (Source me AF BLK 2)
Despite his unprecedented achievements as a fighter pilot and an Air Force officer, Charles McGee retired as a Colonel. On the surface, this could seem to be a great accomplishment. A closer look at his career, however, reveals that after every successful flying leadership position he held as a fighter pilot, he was returned to a support job. Support jobs are a slower track to promotion by the Air Force’s/RDR’s own admission. Per the RDR, the pilot track is the fastest track to promotion, command, etc. Let me restate it this way.
Colonel McGee had great success as a fighter pilot with the legendary Tuskegee Airmen in WWII (136 combat missions) and was eventually moved to a support job out of the cockpit. Then Korea happened, and he got pulled back into a fighter cockpit and had great success (100 combat missions). After Korea, he was sent back to a non-fighter pilot job. He was given a squadron command job in Vietnam and had stellar success with 173 combat missions. After Vietnam, though he had 409 combat missions (the only person to ever fly over 100 combat missions in three wars), he was moved out of fighter pilot jobs for the rest of his career. (Please see his autobiography “Tuskegee Airman, Biography of Charles E. McGee: Air Force Fighter Combat Record Holder Paperback – July 15, 2012”
Charles McGee’s greatest accomplishment was achieved outside of Air Force channels as a small grassroots team successfully lobbied Congress for legislation to secure his honorary promotion to Brigadier General. (source AF BLK 3) He pinned on the rank at 100 years old.
As great as the Tuskegee Airmen’s accomplishments were, the opportunities and recognition afforded them by the Air Force were mostly not realized until they were in their mid-to-late 80s. Again, forces outside the Air Force, in this case, the national organization for the Tuskegee Airmen and Congress, led the way for this post-career recognition:
“The Congressional Gold Medal is the highest civilian recognition awarded by the U.S. Congress. This medal was presented to the Tuskegee Airmen, African American pilots flying for the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II. Awarded on March 29, 2007, the medal recognized their ‘unique military record that inspired revolutionary reform in the Armed Forces.’”
Tuskegee Airman Benjamin O Davis had many accomplishments: Commander of the famed 99th Fighter Squadron and 332nd Fighter Group, Commander of Lockbourne Army Air Base, Commander of 332nd Fighter Wing, Commander of the 51st Fighter-Interceptor Wing, Chief of staff, Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations, Headquarters U.S. Air Forces in Europe, Assistant Deputy Chief of Staff, Programs and Requirements, Thirteenth Air Force Commander, Deputy Commander in Chief, U.S. Strike Command, with additional duty as Commander in Chief, Middle-East, Southern Asia and Africa.
Benjamin O. Davis Jr., was a West Point graduate, the son of the first black Army general, and became the Air Force’s first black general. It could be argued that he was the most influential black fighter pilot general in Air Force history. He retired as the Air Force’s first black three-star general.
Let’s take a further look at General Davis’ wartime responsibilities. In the U.S. Army’s Eighth Air Force fighter groups contained three squadrons:
“Eighth U.S. Army Air Force
In 1942 the ‘Mighty Eighth’ came to Britain, where it experienced a lengthy, painful gestation period. Its mission of conducting precision daylight bombing of German industry was hampered, as bomber and fighter groups originally assigned to Gen. Ira Eaker’s fledgling force were constantly siphoned off to support the North African and Mediterranean theaters. Additionally, a period of heavy bomber losses threatened morale during 1943, causing doubt whether the daylight air offensive could be sustained. However, by the start of 1944 the Eighth had evolved into a powerful striking arm and was growing stronger. Increasingly capable long-range fighter escorts reduced bomber losses to acceptable levels. It was among the best of the army air corps.
The composition of USAAF units was standardized by 1943. A heavy bombardment group with B-17s or B-24s had four squadrons, each of which typically put up nine planes per mission. Fighter groups had three squadrons, divided into three or four flights of four each. Thus, full-strength bomb groups flew about thirty-six aircraft, while fighter units launched thirty-six to forty-eight planes. The number of planes dispatched on a specific mission depended on maintenance, crew availability, and the nature of the target.
As the Commander of the 332 Fighter Group, however, General Davis had command of four squadrons:
“In all, 992 men completed the Tuskegee advanced flight training program and earned their wings. As pilots graduated, the majority would be assigned to one of four fighter squadrons: the 99th, 100th, 301st and 302nd. These four squadrons would become part of the 332nd Fighter Group. A total of 355 pilots were sent to the warfront in North Africa and Europe (the Mediterranean Theater) as fighter pilots. Sadly, 80 gave their lives and 31 became prisoners of war.”
The reason General Davis’ fighter group, the 332nd, had four squadrons was that the Air Force was not segregated, so it put all the black fighter squadrons in one group. The bright spot in the ugliness of segregation was that it gave General Davis greater responsibility than his Fighter Group Commander peers.
This leads me to make the case that General Davis deserved a fourth star. He commanded the largest fighter group in the Eighth Air Force, “among the best of the army air corps.” He had this command responsibility during the time of America’s greatest wartime conflict. His success in combat was instrumental in facilitating the integration of America’s armed forces. In addition to the combat success of the Tuskegee Airmen, I would again cite his status as a Westpoint graduate, the son of a general officer, multiple Wing commands, senior staff positions, numbered Air Force command, etc.
The honor of a fourth star, however, for having one of the best flying leadership resumes of any black officer to that point and certainly comparable to his white peers, would not be extended to Benjamin O. Davis Jr. until 1998. In 1998 President Clinton honorarily promoted General Davis to the rank of four-star general. He was 86 years old.
The man who presided over the largest concentration of black fighter pilots the world has ever seen with one of the best flying combat records the American military has ever seen needed help outside the Air Force to make four stars. You may think four-star general is something so rare that it is unfair to say that General Davis should have made it.
Let’s look at some numbers. There have been, give or take, 229 four-star generals in Air Force history. I say give or take, since I haven’t validated this Wikipedia list in some time.
Out of the 229, ten have been black. Let’s go a little further into the numbers. When I helped lead the SECDEF’s diversity study in 2003, there were 14 Air Force four-star generals. When I wrote the Air Force’s Black Ceiling in 2016, there were 11. Today there are 12 (including the Space Force). Again, for perspective, the ten black four-star generals match the low-end number of Air Force generals on duty at any given time.
Of the ten black generals, Daniel “Chappie” James was the first in 1975. Three have attained this rank since 2012, including General C.Q. Brown, Jr., the Air Force’s current Chief of Staff, who earned his fourth star in 2018. Also, by comparison, there have been five white female four-generals since 2012. There has never been a black female four-star general in the Air Force’s history.
In “Black Ceiling” and “The Air Force’s Black Pilot Training Experience,” I wrote about the career of General Chappie James. The great pilot myth was not true for General James either. It was not true for him that success as a fighter pilot with a stellar combat record would automatically lead to promotion success in the Air Force. In these books, I show how General James had to go outside of the Air Force, outside of the flying community, into DoD Public affairs to get his first and second stars.
Here are few highlights of General James’ career:
“In 1942, with the U.S. already at war, he graduated from Tuskegee with a Bachelor of Science degree in physical education and a civilian pilot certification. He stayed on at Tuskegee as a flight instructor, entering the Army Air Corps Aviation Cadet program in January 1943.
James was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army Air Corps the following July. He completed fighter pilot combat training at Selfridge Field, Mich., but was not sent overseas. Though many of the famed Tuskegee Airmen served with distinction overseas, James remained in the U.S. as an instructor during World War II. He would not see combat until Korea.”
“When the Air Force began implementing its desegregation plan in 1949, James was finally sent overseas. He was assigned to the 18th Fighter Wing’s 12th Fighter-Bomber Squadron, an integrated unit in the Philippines. James later told his son that very few white service members initially talked to him, but he persisted anyway.
James was sent to Korea in July 1950 and completed 101 combat missions during his deployment. A year later, he was back in the U.S. and working his way up the ranks, including a stint at the Pentagon. By the time Vietnam began, he was a colonel. In June 1967, James deployed to Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, Thailand, where he was named vice commander of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing. The unit was under the command of then-Col. Robin Olds, who James knew from working at the Pentagon.
James flew 78 combat missions into North Vietnam and helped Olds to plan and lead the famed Operation Bolo in January 1967. In what’s often considered the greatest air battle of the war, U.S. fighters destroyed seven enemy MiG-21 aircraft during Bolo, which was the highest total kill of any air mission during Vietnam. The mission, which saw no U.S. losses, is how the 8th TFW earned its nickname ‘The Wolf Pack’ — because Olds told his pilots they would be ‘wolves in sheep’s clothing.’
After returning to the U.S., James served as vice commander of the 33rd Tactical Fighter Wing at Eglin Air Force Base. He was persistent, tactically skillful and seen as a steady combat leader — attributes that earned him his next role as the commander of the 7272nd Fighter Training Wing at Wheelus Air Base in Libya. It was August of 1969, and Muammar Gadhafi had just successfully overthrown the Libyan king. The U.S. had agreed to turn Wheelus over to the Libyans prior to the coup, and James was responsible for the withdrawal. He kept a cool head despite the tensions, which led to a successful and conflict-free drawdown.
‘James’ leadership and diplomatic skills were put to full use in that delicate situation in which the new anti-Western, radical Libyan leader sought to expel the Air Force,’ Halvorsen later said. ‘Back home, James’ speeches on Americanism and patriotism were so well regarded, many were read into the Congressional Record.’
Military officials had begun to take notice of his public speaking skills when James was at Eglin. After Libya, he was tapped to be a deputy assistant secretary of defense for public affairs.”
As I read the account of General James’ career above from defense.cov, I can see why the case was made to put General James in public affairs. However, I can also see how he could have enjoyed a stellar career leading fighter pilots as a Fighter Wing, Numbered Air Force commander, a senior officer on the H.Q. Tactical Air Command Staff, or the position he later attained as a Major Air Command Commander. Here’s how I support the latter.
General James was an original Tuskegee Airman who helped train many of the Tuskegee Airmen that flew in combat in WWII. He flew 101 combat missions as a fighter pilot in Korea and 78 in Vietnam. He was a Vice Wing Commander of two fighter wings, one the famed “Wolf Pack” under General Robin Olds. He was also a Fighter Training Wing Commander. Looking at this resume, you would not assume he would move on to two assignments in DoD Public Affairs and then an assignment as Vice Commander of Military Airlift Command. General Davis would ultimately be selected as Commander of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).
To truly understand my misgivings for how General James was treated, you have to understand the historical context in which his career took place. During the 1970s, the Air Force was undergoing a massive upheaval, a metamorphosis. It was changing its entire senior leadership structure from one dominated by bomber pilots to one dominated by fighter pilots. Fighter pilots with combat experience in the mid-to-late ‘70s would be targeted for faster promotions and tracked into the Air Force’s most senior leadership positions. Here’s a quote from “Black Ceiling” that describes the historical shift that took place:
“In his book Rise of the Fighter Generals, Mike Worden described how the Department of Defense had determined that its most senior leadership positions would be filled by pilots, specifically fighter pilots. The shift began in the early 1970s. During that decade, fighter pilots grew, and outnumbered bomber pilots four to one. High-ranking officials in the DoD wanted to see a more “youthful” demographic in its ranks. Pilots with bomber backgrounds were reminiscent of the previous World Wars, so pilots with fighter backgrounds seemed to embody the “new thinking” that was desired in the “upper echelons” of the Air Force.
To ensure that this fighter structure began to take shape the Air Force’s chief of personnel Gen. Dixon “met the rising need for flag officers with fighter experience by promoting officers with fighter backgrounds earlier (‘below the zone’) than their competitors; this meant that they were young enough to compete in greater proportion for the higher flag officer ranks before reaching mandatory retirement at 35 years of service.” Dixon was only given one month to implement the new policy structure, but it was undeniably effective because each year in the ‘70s, a greater percentage of fighter pilots received promotions.
“By 1982, there were no bomber generals in key Air Staff positions, and fighter generals outnumbered bomber generals in the major command by five to four.” (Worden, p. 226, Appendix C).
On the surface, it may seem that General James was part of this “Rise of the Fighter Generals” as he was selected as a fighter pilot to be the Vice Commander of Military Airlift Command and ultimately the Commander of NORAD. It is my assertion, however, that General James would never have become a four-star or likely even a three-star general if he had not had assistance outside Air Force channels with jobs in DoD Public Affairs.
Even without researching it, I would venture to say that not many (or possibly any other) fighter pilots in this era made it to four-star rank without being selected for Wing command, being selected to serve on the HQ TAC or Air Staff, or being selected to command a Numbered Air Force (NAF).
As a fighter pilot with a stellar combat flying record, General James was not afforded any of these key developmental opportunities. Regrettably, I have to pause and address the ugly notion that General James made it to four stars because of affirmative action. I’d like to start addressing it with a historical look at affirmative action’s origin and definition. I have quoted The American Association for Access, Equity and Diversity (AAAED) below:
“WHAT IS AFFIRMATIVE ACTION?
In its Final Report to President Eisenhower, the President’s Committee on Government Contracts, headed by Vice President Richard Nixon, concluded:
Overt discrimination, in the sense that an employer actually refuses to hire solely because of race, religion, color, or national origin is not as prevalent as is generally believed. To a greater degree, the indifference of employers to establishing a positive policy of nondiscrimination hinders qualified applicants and employees from being hired and promoted on the basis of equality.
President Kennedy incorporated the concept of ‘affirmative action’ into Executive Order 10925, which he issued in 1961. Executive Order 10925 imposed on all covered contractors a general obligation requiring positive steps designed to overcome obstacles to equal employment opportunity.
In 1965, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed Executive Order 11246, which gave the Secretary of Labor responsibility for administration and enforcement of the Order mandating that contractors not discriminate against any employees or qualified applicants because of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. Contractors were to take affirmative action to ensure nondiscrimination in employment, upgrading, demotion or transfer, recruitment or recruitment advertising, layoff or termination, rates of pay or other forms of compensation, and selection for training, including apprenticeship.
Before signing the order in September 1965, President Johnson uttered the words that continue to resonate today during his speech at Howard University’s Commencement, June 4, 1965: Freedom is not enough. … You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.
The quest for equality as a right and as a result has taken more than 50 years. It has faced much success, as evidenced in the marked increases of women and persons of color in private industry, in government, and in the Academy. It has also faced considerable challenges, rhetorical and legal, waxing in certain presidential administrations, waning in others.
Affirmative action itself has been defined as ‘any measure, beyond simple termination of a discriminatory practice, adopted to correct or compensate for past or present discrimination or to prevent discrimination from recurring in the future.’ (U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Statement on Affirmative Action, October 1977.)
Affirmative action has varying definitions depending upon the sector in which it is found, e.g., education, government contracting and employment. Executive Order 11246 and its regulations refer to a process that requires a government contractor to examine and evaluate the total scope of its personnel practices for the purpose of identifying and correcting any barriers to equal employment opportunity. Where problems are identified, the contractor is required to develop a program that is precisely tailored to correct the deficiencies. Where appropriate, the contractor is required to establish reasonable goals to measure success toward achieving that result. The affirmative action program incorporated in the regulations has its origins in the private sector, where contractor ‘Plans for Progress’ were reportedly designed to take positive action and prevent discrimination lawsuits.
Affirmative action programs encompass more than outreach and recruitment, however, and include efforts to prevent discrimination by eliminating barriers to equal employment opportunity. The inverse relationship between affirmative action and discrimination is reflected in the Executive Order itself, which begins with a prohibition against discrimination. In essence, affirmative action creates an environment where equal employment opportunity can prevail. Affirmative action, especially as it is mandated in employment discrimination litigation, is also compensatory and serves to remedy the effects of past discrimination.
Affirmative action therefore means taking positive steps to end discrimination, to prevent its recurrence, and to create new opportunities that were previously denied minorities and women.
Affirmative action has been criticized as constituting reverse discrimination, preferential treatment, stigmatizing to beneficiaries and contravening principles of merit.”
General James retired in 1977. As a Tuskegee Airman, he served when segregation was not only the law of the land but was also the foundation that undergirded America’s Armed Forces. The Tuskegee Airmen certainly met the criteria of men that were “previously denied” opportunities and were deserving of “remedies of the effects of past discrimination.” By this definition, Daniel Chappie James could most certainly be selected for his third and fourth star though he was never selected for the key developmental positions I previously mentioned (commander of a fighter Wing or NAF, serving on the HQ TAC or Air Staff).
It is fascinating to me that Vice President Nixon’s Committee issued this statement in the 1950s, “Overt discrimination, in the sense that an employer actually refuses to hire solely because of race, religion, color, or national origin is not as prevalent as is generally believed.” It sounds eerily familiar to the Air Force’s 2021 racial disparity report. The great pilot myth would have you believe that overt discrimination was not prevalent then and, therefore, could not possibly exist today. But what if merit was the only factor in selecting fighter pilots for the Air Force’s key developmental positions? What if race were truly not a factor?
What if General James, a Tuskegee Airman, a man of many black “firsts,” including the Air Force’s first black four-star general, was merely the beneficiary of affirmative action? If he was, then certainly other black pilots would later be afforded these key developmental firsts in the Air Force based on their merit. In “Black Ceiling” and “Black Pilot State of the Union,” I share that the Air Force has NEVER in its history had a black fighter pilot general officer on the Headquarters (HQ) TAC now (Air Combat Command Staff). The Air Force has NEVER had a black Wing Commander at one of its “premiere CONUS Fighter Wings” (see Appendix C or “Black Pilot” for definition). The Air Force has had one black Fighter Wing (vs. Training Wing, Bomber Wing, Airlift Wing) Commander in the Continental United States (CONUS). General Lloyd “Fig” Newton commanded an F-117 Wing in 1991 in New Mexico.
The Air Force Racial Disparity Review is strangely and inappropriately silent on fighter pilot developmental opportunities. It is inappropriate because becoming a fighter pilot is the greatest developmental opportunity in the Air Force. In the Air Force’s own admission (in the RDR), pilots have the highest rates of promotion and the highest selection rates to Wing Command and beyond.
In “Black Ceiling,” I highlight a pattern of targeted development for fighter pilots that started under General Wilbur Creech, who commanded Tactical Air Command (TAC) for an unprecedented six years. Under General Creech, selected fighter pilots followed a cookie-cutter pattern of rotational assignments that featured prominent positions on the HQ TAC staff and the HQ USAF Staff, “Air Staff.” During the Creech era, it was unheard of for a fighter pilot to make a third or fourth star without serving on the HQ TAC or Air Staff. The vestiges and underpinnings of the Creech system still exist in the Air Force today.
General Creech’s administration unequivocally disproved the great pilot myth. Under Creech being a pilot, even a fighter pilot with combat experience, did not translate to career success for black officers. General Creech presided over the largest and most discriminatory draw down of black fighter pilots that the Air Force has ever seen. I wrote a chapter entitled “The Great Blackout” in “Black Ceiling” that details this drawdown. Here is an excerpt from that chapter:
“The greatest tragedy of the Creech system is that it not only excluded minority fighter pilots for development but that it eliminated the largest group of senior black fighter pilots with combat experience that the Air Force has ever seen. According to Mike Worden, author of the Rise of The Fighter Generals, ‘Doctrinal, procurement, and budgetary shifts towards tactical airpower in the 1970s manifested themselves proportionally in greater numbers of fighter wings, aircraft, and pilots retained during defense cutbacks through the mid-1970s’ (Worden, 1998). The greatest reduction of black fighter pilots that the Air Force has ever seen occurred at a time when the Air Force was in great need of fighter pilots and at a time when fighter pilots were being ‘retained.’
The data on this drawdown is staggering and was provided in December 2003 by the HQ USAF Directorate of Personnel and approved for release by the Air Force Chief of Staff to the Defense Business Board. In Fiscal Year (F.Y.) 1978 (Gen. Creech’s command tenure: May 1, 1978, thru December 31, 1984), there were 11,724 nonminority fighter pilots and 1,391 minority fighter pilots (948 Capts, 113 Majors, 153 Lt. Colonels, 79 Colonels, 3 Brigadier Generals, one Major General). In F.Y. 1979, there were 11,526 nonminority fighter pilots and only 372 minority fighter pilots (209 Capts, 47 Majors, 29 Lt. Colonels, 11 Colonels, and zero generals). (Gen. Chappie James moved outside the Department of the Air Force). At a time when nonminority fighter pilot reductions were statistically insignificant, minority fighter pilot reductions skyrocketed…”
To put the drawdown in focus, a total of 198 white officers were drawn down. All four black fighter pilot generals were down, as were 68 full Colonels, 124 Lieutenant Colonels, 66 Majors, and 739 Captains. None of the Colonels or Lieutenant Colonels who survived this purge would be promoted to brigadier general under General Creech.
For 1,019 black fighter pilots with combat experience, ranging from the rank of Major General to Captain, the great pilot myth proved to be just that, a myth. Their careers did not survive “The Great Black Out.” At a time when the Air Force was clamoring for fighter pilots and bursting with developmental opportunities for pilots, these pilots’ skin color did not merit their retention.
I don’t want to give the impression that the great pilot myth only affected the Tuskegee Airmen or the black fighter pilots who had the misfortune of serving under General Creech. Similar impacts of the myth are still being felt today. It is the reason that the Air Force is still achieving many firsts in recent years and still has so many NEVERs.
The following list provides perspective on how recent many of the Air Force’s “first are. For even more perspective, most of these firsts happened after I retired from the Air Force after 24 years in 2010. I never got to see most of them while in uniform.
o 2008: 1st black three-star Fighter Numbered Air Force Commander in PACAF
o 2014: 1st black Commander of Air Mobility Command
o 2014: **1st black CFACC, Combined Forces Air Component Commander (Iraq)
o 2016: 1st black female three-star general
o 2016: 1st black three-star Numbered Air Force Commander in USAFE
o 2018: **1st black Pacific Air Forces Commander, PACAF/CC
o 2019: 1st black female USAFA graduate promoted to Brigadier General
o **1st black CSAF 2020
o 2021: 1st black Commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, formerly Strategic Air Command (SAC)
o ** all the same person
o Black general officer on the HQ TAC/ACC Staff
o Black Fighter Wing Commander at a CONUS “premier” Wing: Langley AFB, Shaw AFB, Seymour-Johnson AFB
o Black female four-star general
Why are the “NEVERS” important? They are important because they are the remnants of the General Creech system. The fact that these NEVERS are still in place in 2022 shows that the “great pilot” myth is just that. There are certain doors in the Air Force that are still closed to pilots of color. It doesn’t matter how “great” pilots of color have been since the establishment of the Air Force as a separate service in 1947. The myth is not true. Certain doors are not open.
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