Commander proud of legacy, hopeful for change
Stars and Stripes June 22, 2003
RAF MILDENHALL, England — The walls of Lt. Col. Chevalier Cleaves’ office are decorated with prints featuring the exploits of the Tuskegee Airmen.
Some of them are adorned with autographs of the black pilots who flew to fame during World War II, busting the entrenched stereotype that blacks lacked what it took to fly airplanes.
Cleaves, 39, commander of the 351st Air Refueling Squadron, appreciates those who came before him and considers himself part of that legacy.
So he was a bit surprised recently when he checked the figures and found that of the Air Force’s 12,639 pilots, only 236 are black.
“That’s exactly 2 percent,” he said, a bit astonished at the figures.
Because the Tuskegee Airmen numbered 992, he said, “You’d think it might have gone in another direction.”
Cleaves, who graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1985, said he has no idea why so few black pilots sit at the controls of Air Force aircraft.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I can’t draw the string on how these things happen.
“Currently, we have a lot of super-qualified professionals in other walks of life. They don’t necessarily gravitate toward the Air Force.”
Cleaves wishes they would. The Air Force needs good people to maintain its superiority over the rest of the world.
True, he acknowledged, blacks are successful doctors and lawyers and architects and scientists. But Cleaves wants those people to consider the Air Force, as well.
“I would want that guy here,” he said. “That will help us in the Air Force. They can go on to that other job later.”
Cleaves is a native of Memphis and a graduate of a high school in Flint, Mich. He entered the academy at age 17 and quickly noticed from the photos on the walls that the leaders of the service wore wings.
He soloed on his 21st birthday and now flies KC-135 tankers. He also has served as a T-38 instructor pilot.
Cleaves can tick off a list of black role models that only starts with Secretary of State Colin Powell and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice.
Gen. Lester L. Lyles, commander of the Air Force Materiel Command at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, is on the list. It goes on and on.
Asked if he considers himself to be a role model, Cleaves quickly answered, “I do.”
He has frequently advised young people on careers in the Air Force. At an earlier assignment, he was part of a mentoring group called Making A Better Tomorrow.
As a commander, he wants to be visible to all those in his squadron, regardless of ethnic background.
“I don’t like stereotypes,” he said. “I think we help ourselves when we expose ourselves to each other because things you don’t know about, you’re afraid of.”
Cleaves said the senior leadership of the Air Force is aware of the small number of black pilots in its ranks. He hopes that any effort to reach out to young blacks will raise that 2 percent figure.
“There’s an opportunity to succeed here,” he said. “That’s the message we need to get out.”