Tuskegee Airmen exhibit to open

By TORY N. PARRISH | The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review | Published: September 8, 2013

To describe the Tuskegee Airmen as trailblazers would be an understatement, Maj. Hilary Ayanru said.

The airmen became the military's first black pilots during World War II, and they later fought to get black pilots hired by airlines during the civil rights movement, he said.

“I think they are getting recognition that's long overdue,” said Ayanru, 43, of Robinson, the only black pilot among about 80 pilots assigned to the 171st Air Refueling Wing of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard, which is part of the Air Force, in Moon.

Ayanru is among active black pilots who will take special and personal note this week of a series of events commemorating the airmen's legacy, including the opening of an exhibit at Pittsburgh International Airport. The events lead up to the long-planned opening of the $300,000 Tuskegee Airmen Memorial at Sewickley Cemetery on Sept. 15, the largest outdoor memorial to the airmen in the country.

There were 2,483 pilot trainees who participated in what officially was known as the “Tuskegee Experience” at Moton Field and Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama from July 19, 1941, to June 28, 1946, according to Tuskegee University.

Of the 996 pilots who graduated, 352 went overseas for combat duty. Their performance helped pave the way for desegregation of the military, according to the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site.

Part of the Army Air Corps, the airmen included navigators, bombardiers, instructors and maintenance and support staff. More airmen — about 100 — came from Western Pennsylvania than from any other region, said Regis Bobonis Sr., chairman of the Tuskegee Airmen Memorial of the Greater Pittsburgh Region Inc., which led the fundraising initiatives for all Tuskegee recognition projects.

The Sewickley memorial seemed like a pipe dream for years, said Shadyside resident Wendell Freeland, 88, one of four surviving, local, Tuskegee Airmen.

“Frankly, I had my doubts about it ever coming to pass ... because it was such a huge project and so few people were involved at first,” said Freeland, who was a flight officer with the 477th Bombardment Group.

Ayanru and others point to progress made in diversifying the military overall, though some positions, such as pilots, don't reflect those changes.

Of the Air Force's 12,000 pilots on active duty, about 200, or less than 2 percent, have self-reported as black, said a spokeswoman, Lt. Col. Laurel Tingley. She noted that 500 pilots declined to disclose their race and 100 identified themselves as being of more than one race.

Numbers are similar for the Navy, which has 261 black pilots of a total 11,777, said Lt. Hayley Sims, chief naval personnel spokeswoman. The Air Force and Navy have the largest numbers of fixed-wing aircraft in the military.

“There is still a long way to go,” said Ayanru, also a FedEx pilot.

Retired Navy Lt. Cmdr. Brenda Robinson, 56, knows firsthand about breaking barriers, but the efforts of the airmen had a great impact on her career, she said.

The Charlotte, N.C., resident became the first black female naval aviator in 1980.

“I think the road was paved so smoothly for me that all I had to do was work seriously hard,” she said. “Now, I'm not going to say that I didn't have to deal with racism. ... Too many people knew that I was there and they were watching to see how I progressed.”

Tory N. Parrish is a Trib Total Media staff writer./ tparrish@tribweb.com.