Profile - The CAF Red Tail Project

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South St. Paul, MN, United States
The mission of the Commemorative Air Force's (CAF) Red Tail Squadron is to preserve and share the history and legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, America's first black military pilots. The Airmen served with distinction during WWII (and beyond). They overcame racism on the ground to fight fascism in the air, fighting for a country that turned a blind eye to policies and a large population that discriminated against these men and their families because of the color of their skin. The CAF Red Tail Squadron restored and flies a red-tailed P-51C Mustang such as the Airmen flew during WWII. The airplane appears at air shows in North America and at each stop her crew tells the story of the Airmen and how through persistence and courage they overcame huge obstacles in order to serve in the military. In 2011, the CAF Red Tail Squadron developed a traveling exhibit called "RISE ABOVE" to educate people - especially young people - about the Airmen and how they demonstrated the importance of setting goals and overcoming obstacles in order to succeed.

Friday, February 25, 2011

A White Commander of a Segregated Base: Tuskegee's Noel Parrish

     In July 1941, career Army officer Major Noel F. Parrish took his place as the first director of training for the new black fighter group being set up at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Tuskegee, Alabama. By the end of 1942, Parrish was commanding the entire base - the third white man to be ordered to run what's been called "an army within an army" of black men who were anxious to fly and fight for their country during the Second World War.
      Parrish was not fazed by this entry into unknown territory, managing this "Tuskegee Experiment" that the brass in Washington were sure would fail. He was not afraid of a challenge. He started his army career in the Cavalry and became a competent horseman and soldier. After about a year, he traded the saddle for an Army Air Corps cockpit, learning to fly in old mono- and bi-planes left over from the Great War. He ultimately became an Air Corps flight instructor and built a reputation as someone who worked his students hard.
      His strict adherence to the training manual was based on his desire to help the cadets develop the skills necessary to handle anything the flight situation and/or aircraft could throw at them. If a student didn't make the grade, Parrish had no qualms about removing him from the flight program in order to keep him and others out of harms way.
      Because Tuskegee is located in the deep south, Parrish was aware that not only was he going to have to work with his people on the base, he also needed to work with the locals who were concerned about having hundreds of young black men concentrated in their midst. Recall that this was the time when restrooms and drinking fountains were labeled "Blacks" and "Whites," schools and movie theaters were segregated, and gang violence against blacks by whites was not out of the norm. The thought of having black MPs carrying guns was not going to be easily accepted by whites in the area.
      Parrish's immediate predecessor had "gone with it" when it came to appeasing the locals. He had maintained the segregationist principles of the area on the base with little thought as to how that policy would affect the men who had to live and train there. Parrish set up an integrated base facility, which greatly improved morale.
      Tuskegee's first training class - taught by Parrish - had 12 students. Seven washed out and five graduated. By the end of the war, 966 young black men had earned their wings and more than 450 of them would see combat (a number of Tuskegee pilots were trained to fly bombers in the Pacific theater but the war ended before they could be utilitized). Parrish remained as base commander for the duration of the war and ultimately attained the rank of general. He passed away in 1987.

The CAF Red Tail Project is a volunteer-driven 501c3 non-profit organization that operates under the auspices of the Minnesota Wing of the Commemorative Air Force. For more information, please visit

Friday, February 18, 2011

The 2011 Air Shows

     The volunteer crew of the CAF Red Tail Project's rare P51-C Mustang
Tuskegee Airmen are finalizing the schedule for the airplane's 2011 air show appearances. As of now, the airplane will appear at nine different venues beginning next month and going into October. You can see the current schedule here. (You might want to bookmark that page for future reference.)
      This is an exciting time for the pilots and other volunteers as they figure out how to balance their time at air shows with the airplane with their commitment to family and employers. They'll need reserve lodging close to the venue and make arrangements to have the airplane safely housed and fueled while en route and at the show. They need to allow for the airplane's ongoing scheduled maintenance, too.
      The script for the show will also need to be reviewed and updated. The script is what the announcer reads as the Mustang flies over the crowd, Merlin engine in full throat. It outlines details about the airplane (how big the engine is, how fast it flies, how Mustangs were used by the military and so forth) but the main message is always about how this type of airplane was flown by Tuskegee Airmen who painted their planes' tails red so that both friends and enemies would know exactly who was flying and fighting in the skies over Europe during World War Two. The script should give air show attendees a strong sense of what those young black men went through to be allowed to train to fly; how they kept their eyes on the goal and did whatever it took to earn their wings as America's first black military pilots.
      If the air show is near to where a Tuskegee Airman lives, he will be contacted to see if he would like to make an appearance with the airplane. If that is feasible, the Project will work to ensure that his visit to the air show goes smoothly by arranging transportation to the show, gate admission, and on-site logistics such as getting him and accompanying friends and/or family from the gate to the airplane by motorized vehicle at a certain time. If the Airman is able to give a talk about his experiences, the Project's team will coordinate that very special event with the air show organizers as well.
      During the air show, the pilots and crew have a lot of time between flights so they park the Mustang and greet everyone who stops by. Some people touch the airplane, others just look at it, but all are impressed. Many air show attendees know its story with the Project:  how it was restored to fly again in 2001 after being grounded for 55 years. How the Project's first leader, Don Hinz, was flying it at a Minnesota air show in 2004 when the engine completely failed. How Don deadsticked the airplane - which had turned into a very heavy glider - away from houses to a crash landing amongst some trees. How Don survived the crash but died of his injuries the next day. How the rest of the team committed to rebuilding the Mustang again so it could continue to educate people about the history and legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen. How it took five years to get the airplane restored and back in the skies in July, 2009.
      Others may be seeing a warbird up close for the first time and ask about the red tail. The crew is always happy to talk about the airplane and the Tuskegee Airmen. Of course, there will also be hats, shirts, calendars and other fun stuff for sale - all proceeds from on-site sales and through the Project's online store go maintain the airplane.
      If the Mustang named Tuskegee Airmen is going to be at an air show close to you this year, we hope you'll come out to see it and the crew. Be sure to stop by and say "hi!"

Friday, February 11, 2011

Black History Month

     2011 is the 35th year that the month of February has been designated as “Black History Month” by the sitting U.S. President.  The Internet and other non-traditional educational resources list numerous ways one can participate in the month’s special events.  They include learning about and honoring African-American educators like Booker T. Washington, poets like Maya Angelou, writers like Alex Hailey (Roots), scientists like George Washington Carver (botanist) and history-changers like The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
     A Google search for “Tuskegee Airmen Black History Month” brings up a couple of items of note. There was a presentation to 50 members of the Coast Guard by a representative of a local Tuskegee Airmen chapter on February 2 and Fantasy of Flight out of Tampa (FL) hosted a Tuskegee Symposium yesterday and has more events planned for today and tomorrow.
     While these events are wonderful, their necessary “exclusivity” points out one big problem when it comes to learning about the life-lessons and legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen – attendees either have to be part of a group (the Coast Guard event) or travel somewhere (Fantasy of Flight) to participate.  Either way, the audience is limited.
     That will change this year when the CAF Red Tail Project’s RISE ABOVE mobile exhibit goes on the road to take the story of the Tuskegee Airmen directly to the audience. It will travel to schools, malls, fairs, and air shows where thousands of people will be entertained and informed by its unique interactive displays.  The Project’s leadership team is promising a big announcement about RISE ABOVE in the next few weeks so stay tuned!

Friday, February 4, 2011

On Aiming High

     The first of the CAF Red Tail Project’s six tenets of the RISE ABOVE educational program is: Aim High.  The Tuskegee Airmen certainly did that as they worked to prove “the brass” wrong: black men were smart enough and courageous enough to learn to fly and fight for America during the Second World War.  Through months and months of rigorous flight training and then in battle, the Airmen continued to aim high – literally and figuratively.
     It takes courage to set a lofty goal and work to meet it.  Aviation and aerospace are industries that often require human courage to move toward their programs’ goals and suffer the setbacks when things don’t work out or, worse, go horribly wrong.   .
     This past Tuesday marked the end of another anniversary of seven days in the American space program that Americans would like to forget, yet make an effort to remember in order to honor 17 courageous people who paid the ultimate price.  

  • On January 26 (1986), the space shuttle Challenger blew up less than two minutes after launch, killing seven astronauts
  • On January 27 (1967), the three crew members of Apollo 1  burned to death in their capsule during launch pad tests
  • On February 1 (2003), the space shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon reentry; seven astronauts lost their lives.
      Each of these catastrophes was heavily analyzed to determine their cause(s). Based on that analysis, changes were made to future programs and missions to try and avoid another disaster.  Ambient air temperature is now a launch consideration as a result of the Challenger explosion.  Major changes – including allowing the escape hatch to be opened from the inside  – were made to the Apollo program’s space capsule after the Apollo 1 disaster. The Apollo program suffered no more disasters and even brought home a trio of astronauts that “had a problem” when their moon mission suffered an explosion in space (Apollo 13). And, although pieces of thermal insulation still fall off of the space shuttles’ external tanks at launch, the crews now take space walks to check a shuttle’s exterior and make repairs to the heat-resistant tiles before reentry.
     The next shuttle launch is set for February 24.  The lessons learned from previous successful launches as well Challenger and Columbia will have been factored into the decision-making process and if launch conditions are not optimal, the launch will be postponed. 
     When Discovery does launch, it will be hauling components to the international space station.  Talk about aiming high…