Making history come aliveBAY CITY — You could say they are the ultimate teaching tools — a flying P-51C Mustang fighter built in 1944 and a graphics-covered semi-trailer housing an IMAX-type curved movie screen and seating for 30.
By: Robyn Feld, The Republican Eagle
BAY CITY — You could say they are the ultimate teaching tools — a flying P-51C Mustang fighter built in 1944 and a graphics-covered semi-trailer housing an IMAX-type curved movie screen and seating for 30.
Owned and operated by the Commemorative Air Force Red Tail Squadron, the airplane and theater are used to create interest in the story of the Tuskegee Airmen — America’s first black military pilots — and their support teams.
The Squadron’s Mustang flies out of Fleming Field in South St. Paul. The CAF has staged air shows there as well as at Red Wing’s airport near Bay City in recent years. In 2004, an accident at the latter location claimed the life of the former leader and severely damaged the fighter, which has since been rebuilt.
The Squadron’s present leader, Bradford Lang, is the son of a Tuskegee Airman. He flies the Mustang at air shows, alternating flight duties with three other pilots during the air show season, which runs from March into November. Lang is also a Delta Airlines captain.
Lang has been part of the CAF for many years. “When the CAF’s Minnesota Wing was restoring the Mustang in the mid-1990s after almost 50 years of neglect, they decided to take the restoration in a different direction,” he said. “Instead of just having another shiny war bird in the hangar, they wanted this airplane to mean something. It would have an educational focus and help people learn about a unique part of American history that’s been left untold — the story of the Tuskegee Airmen.
“How these brave black men earned the right to fight for their country as aviators is the story we want to tell. They had to overcome so many obstacles to do that,” Lang continued. “They trained at a segregated base in Tuskegee, Ala. Their flight instruction was designed to be extra difficult in the hope that the program would fail. However, it did not fail and 996 black cadets received their wings at Tuskegee.”
When the Tuskegee-trained pilots and their crews were finally sent overseas to North Africa and then Europe, they were not allowed to share barracks, mess halls or even ambulance services with white servicemen. Although they were officers, the Airmen’s salutes were often not returned by their white counterparts.
The Airmen overcame prejudices against them by working hard to compile a record of excellence. They painted their Mustangs’ tails bright red, and the bomber pilots soon began asking for the “red tail angels” to protect them on their missions.
The Tuskegee Airmen flew more than 15,000 combat sorties and were awarded hundreds of medals and citations in recognition of their courage and skill as patriots and pilots.
In 2007, President George W. Bush presented the Tuskegee Airmen with the Congressional Gold Medal in honor of their outstanding service during World War II.
The CAF Red Tail Squadron’s semi-trailer theater, called the Rise Above Traveling Exhibit, is the group’s other educational tool. It shows a short original movie about the Tuskegee Airmen, the airplanes they maintained and flew, and a bit about how the Squadron restored its own red-tailed Mustang.
What makes the Traveling Exhibit so valuable as a teaching aid is that, unlike the Mustang, it can go off-tarmac and visit schools and youth groups prior to an air show weekend.
The Traveling Exhibit was launched at Experimental Aircraft Association’s AirVenture in July of 2011, and, over the next four months, it and the Mustang visited 16 venues, including 13 air shows attended by more than 1.4 million people. Both of the Squadron’s attractions are free of charge.
While the Squadron’s airplane and Traveling Exhibit toured the country the last half of 2011, excitement about George Lucas’ new movie, “Red Tails,” was building.
Lucas and his team met the Squadron’s team at AirVenture when the first movie trailer was introduced. In the weeks that followed, many of the movie’s stars and other VIPs visited various air shows where the Mustang and Traveling Exhibit were on display.
The movie, which will be released nationwide on Friday, Jan. 20, will be another exciting way for the American public to learn more about the Tuskegee Airmen.
The CAF Red Tail Squadron is part of the Commemorative Air Force, which is based in Midland, Tex. The CAF is dedicated to honoring American Military Aviation through flight, exhibition and remembrance. For more information, visit their website at www.redtail.org.