“There was an abundance of red paint.”
So explained Ken Rapier how history was made by the original Tuskegee Airmen. He’s a pilot and president of the Chicago “DODO” Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc.
By now, most know that nearly 1,000 black pilots challenged the status quo by their courage and discipline in protecting American B-17s. As bomber escorts, they flew the P-51 planes with red tails made famous in the movie “Red Tails.”
While the movie acknowledged this reality, it never explained how it happened. So I asked Ken, the first non-Original Tuskegee Airman elected president of the historic “DODO” Chapter.
Fact is, the black pilots got hand-me-down planes. Members of the 332nd Fighter Group wanted to cover old markings to identify their aircraft. So Col. Benjamin O. Davis ordered the tail section painted red. Nobody wanted red paint. But he did.
Why? Ken, whose cousin Gordon Rapier was a wingman for Col. Davis, suggested the commander saw this as an opportunity. Here was a way to make a big statement about these pilots.
In fact, in their first battle, the Germans lost 12 planes! “The enemy realized their decoys couldn't lure these escorts away from their bombers,” he said. Indeed, these World War II pilots had an exemplary record.
Yet no Tuskegee airman was named an ace. Why? “Col. Davis reminded them repeatedly to stay with their aircraft.” In fact, Ken told me German pilots learned before American bomber pilots that the P-51’s were flown by African-Americans.
The significance? The harsh myth at the time was that only white people could fly. So why I am telling you this story?
Simply, the Chicago “DODO” Chapter made a commitment to honor the legacy of the original Tuskegee Airmen with a focus on youths. This is exemplified by their innovative programs to encourage youth to fly and pursue lifelong learning.
The chapter launched a Young Eagles program back in 1994 to provide free flights for young people. These flights are now offered at the Gary/Chicago International Airport. Since 1994, more than 14,000 have participated, said Ken, who serves as chief pilot. Add a robust scholarship program underway since 2004.
Thanks to the Chicago “DODO” Chapter, the legacy of the original Tuskegee Airmen in fighting discrimination will long endure. And so will the iconic tale of the “Red Tails.”
Several years ago, Ken and his partner were flying their Cherokee aircraft with red tails into Gary.
At the same time, seven F-16’s were about to take off for the Gary Air Show. These were the famous Thunderbirds. The Gary air traffic controller asked “Lead Thunderbird” if the “Tuskegee Flight” should go around. The answer came back: “Thunderbirds will wait for Tuskegees.”
Wow! All honor to this co-recipient of the Chanute Prize for encouraging young people to reach for new horizons.