Profile - The CAF Red Tail Project

My photo
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, August 31, 2012

Chanute Air Museum – Part 2: The 99th Fighter Squadron

     As the war in Europe heated up, it was anticipated that eventually the United States would be involved in it in some way.  In 1937, funds were allocated by Congress to rebuild Chanute Field in Rantoul, Illinois, and turn it into a top aviation technical school for the U.S. Army Air Corps. Recruits at Chanute would train to become parachute techs, airplane mechanics, radio operators, pilots, electricians, maintenance officers and ground crew members in a relatively short time.
    By the spring of 1941, Chanute Field was “home” to thousands of draftees and enlisted men.  On March 22, the 99th Pursuit Squadron was activated at Chanute. The unit would consist of African-American men training to support America’s first black military pilots – who would not start their own training at Tuskegee until July.
    A white officer, Captain Harold R. Maddux, was selected to command the 99th. In the picture below, he is on the far left.  Continuing L to R: Dr. Fred L. Patterson, President of the Tuskegee Institute; Col. Raymond E. O’Neil, Chanute’s CO; George L. Washington, Director of the Aeronautics Division of the Tuskegee Institute and Brig. Gen. Rush L. Lincoln.  The men are standing in front of Building T-39, the mess hall used by the 99th.  The occasion was a visit of Tuskegee Institute officials to Chanute Field.  

     The men of the 99th were housed and ate separately from their white counterparts, but it soon became obvious that it would be more efficient for them to take their training as part of the general population.  The Army brass didn't like this semi-integration, but turned a blind eye in the name of efficiency.
     This is a recreation of a typical barracks set-up at Chanute c. 1941.  The windows are from an original Chanute barracks.

     Training was focused and intense.  The men of the 99th left Chanute to go to Tuskegee in November.  They left behind the highest collective Grade Point Average ever earned at the base, before or since their stay.
Radial Engine training

Administrative training
Anthony Jones learned all about sheet metal
Armament training
      The Chanute Air Museum has done a wonderful job honoring the men of the 99th as well as the entire population of the Tuskegee Airmen.  They set aside a large room to tell the story of the 99th Pursuit (later "Fighter") Squadron and did it with flair.
      A mural with a Mustang in action is the first thing you see.

     There are large panels devoted to each experience of the men of the 99th – Chanute, Tuskegee, North Africa, Italy, and as post-war military and civilians.  The museum has added effective little touches, like painting the background panel for “North Africa” to look like desert sand.  There is also a round diorama about everyday life in North Africa that is extremely detailed.
     An interesting 6-minute tape about the Tuskegee Airmen plays in a continuous loop with speakers hidden in “footlockers.”  What I particularly liked was the ceiling, which is painted to look like bomber formations are flying overhead in a cloud-dotted sky; some are being pursued by the Germans.  A model of a German plane is hung from the ceiling (center, nose down), chased by another model of a red-tailed Mustang. 
     One of the first large photos you see in the room is of the men of the 99th at Chanute, eager to learn and ready to fight for freedom.
     That is counterbalanced by another large photo as you prepare to exit that touches on the cost of war to the men of the 99th, indeed to all the men of the segregated 332nd Fighter Group.

     Next week:  Part III - the rest of the museum

     The Traveling Exhibit and Mustang are in Fort Wayne for an air show sponsored by the local Air National Guard unit that starts tonight. 

     Countdown to the election:  67 days

The CAF Red Tail Squadron is a volunteer-driven 501(c)3 non-profit organization that operates under the auspices of the Commemorative Air Force. For more information, please visit

Friday, August 24, 2012

Chanute Air Museum – Part 1

     One of the first things you notice when you drive into Rantoul, Illinois from the west on Highway 136 is that there are moderately sized banners hanging from the light posts.  Closer scrutiny reveals that each contains the name and service branch of local young people who are active military.  That set the tone for me as I drove on to the Chanute Air Museum, my “treat” during a long-distance drive from Minnesota to Florida.
     The museum is named after Octave Chanute, a man who was born in France in 1832 and became a civil engineer who worked in the States, particularly Illinois.  

 An extremely inventive and creative man, he developed a reputation for developing rail lines at a time when the railroad was king of transportation.  He came up with the idea to use nails with a date code on them to better gauge when railroad ties and other timberwork should be replaced. 
   He also designed and built bridges across many Midwestern and Eastern U.S. rivers as well as designing the Chicago and Kansas City stockyards. 
Kinzue railroad trestle in PA before 2003 tornado
     Chanute became an expert in wood preservation and eventually had a company that provided treated wood for railroads and general construction.
     After retiring from his engineering career in 1890, Chanute was able to focus on the challenge of heavier-than-air flight, something that had intrigued him for decades.  He approached it in a very structured manner, compiling data about flight experiments in the U.S. and abroad and opening up his findings to anyone who was interested in flight.  In fact, he believed that flight research and designs should be shared and open to all and not just benefit those who wanted to create a business around it.
     With various partners, he built and tested several glider designs.  One of his most successful designs was a bi-wing glider that required the “pilot” to drape his arms over two supports with his legs hanging below. It was not a very comfortable situation for the pilot, but it did fly.  He did a lot of flight testing in the Indiana sand dunes along Lake Michigan.

     He collaborated with the Wright brothers, who used the basic flight principles that Chanute had championed in their Flyer and later models.  Chanute and the Wrights were eventually at odds about the Wrights’ desire to patent the various components of their flying machines because Chanute continued to be a strong advocate for sharing that information freely so anyone could use Wrights’ designs.  Fortunately, before Chanute died in 1910 he and the Wright brothers had restarted their friendship and collaboration.
     In 1917, the U.S. Army Signal Corps opened a new air field in Rantoul and named it Chanute Field after Octave Chanute.  It then became known as Chanute Air Force Base and tens of thousands of military personnel trained there over the years.  The AFB was closed in 1993 and the remaining runways became part of the local airport.  One large hangar was left standing and that became the Chanute Air Museum.
     Because the Chanute Air Base/Air Force Base existed for 76 years, the exhibits in the Chanute Air Museum cover a lot of  ground. In the next two weekly blogs, I’ll be sharing what I saw and heard with you.  
     For now - here's a free tip:  IF you are on a long-distance drive and IF you plan to stop and see something that has intrigued you since you first saw the sign for it in 2007 - and have passed said sign 12 times since then - I strongly recommend ensuring that you have actually put your little digital camera in your purse or pocket instead of leaving on the bed in the hotel you stayed at the previous night.  
     Even as an experienced writer, I'm challenged to describe the feeling I had when I realized I was finally in the Museum's parking lot after years of anticipation and my camera was 80 miles back up the road.  Thank goodness for disposable film cameras! I was able to get 27 decent shots with the one I bought.  And also thanks to the honest housekeeping staffer who turned my camera in to the desk clerk at the Super 8 in little El Paso, IL.  It was mailed immediately and get here yesterday in perfect shape.

Where in the world are the rig and airplane this week?
The RISE ABOVE Traveling Exhibit and the Mustang are in Brunswick, Maine tonight through Sunday at the Great State of Maine Air Show.  Organizers have really done a great job putting this air show together so if you’re in the area, stop in and enjoy.


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

Friday, August 17, 2012

Rantoul - Chanute: Anticipation

    If you read this blog regularly, you know that I've been living temporarily in Florida since November of last year.  I get back to Minnesota every three months to visit family and friends and check on the house.  I drove this trip because I was staying longer than usual and the budget worked out better for that approach than flying and renting a car.
     I truly enjoy a road trip so driving 1500+ miles one way is not a big deal to me.  I typically complete the jaunt in two or three days, grabbing grub via the drive-thru and stopping only when necessary (I've become quite the expert on rest stops...). 
     This trip from Florida to Minnesota took three days because I took a detour to Iowa to visit family.  The trip back to Florida will also take three days because I'm going to stop somewhere I've wanted to see - the Chanute Air Museum in Rantoul, Illinois.  I'll be there on Monday, the 20th.
     The pilot training program at Tuskegee hadn't even started yet when the 99th Pursuit Squadron (later to be known as a "Fighter Squadron") was activated as the first African-American Army Air Forces unit on March 22, 1941 at Chanute Air Base outside of Rantoul,.  The first class of aviation cadets wouldn't start classes at Tuskegee until July; at that point, the support trainees had already done months of training at Chanute.
A portion of the class of 100 aviation mechanics on graduation day at Chanute Air Base in front of Hangar 3.

     In November, the headquarters for the 99th PS moved to Tuskegee and the 250 young black Americans who would support the pilots trained at Tuskegee went with it.  The majority had learned airplane mechanics but there were also armorers, machinists and welders. These enlisted men would go to North Africa with their pilots as part of the first black aviation unit.  They would also become the ground support base group for the other segregated fighter squadrons (the 100th, 301st and 302nd).  Since each pilot had about 10 people supporting him and more than 990 black military pilots got their wings, it's easy to see why a strong core of trained technical people was important. 
    There's a nice museum near the former air base and I plan to spend time and take pictures as I can.  I'll share my experiences with you in next week's blog.
William R. Thompson
     Speaking of pictures, the Chanute Air Museum is the repository of hundreds of original "everyday" photographs of the Tuskegee Airmen at work and at rest in the U.S. and overseas during World War II.  They were taken by a young man trained at Chanute named William R. Thompson.   
He became an armorer to support the 99th Fighter Squadron and was promoted to armaments officer during his 2+years overseas.  An avid photographer, by practicing his passion during wartime he left us an amazing portfolio of fabulous photos.  The CAF Red Tail Squadron has been given access to the digital versions of the pictures.  The two appearing in this blog are courtesy of the Chanute Air Museum.


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

Friday, August 10, 2012

Air Transport Command

     Since it is ridiculously hot and humid in Florida from May until October, folks spend a lot of time indoors to escape the heat – just like people from the northern climes spend a lot of time indoors during the winter to escape the cold and snow (or come to Florida as a snowbird!).  The bugs come out at night, too, so taking an evening walk is also out of the question unless one is doused with bug spray, which is not my favorite thing.  What do people do to stay busy during all of this indoor "down time"? I don't know what others do, but we play cards, read, do puzzles, talk and watch a lot of TV.
     I believe I have watched more TV since I’ve been down here – nine months now – than the previous two years combined! Thank goodness for Turner Classic Movies - no commercials and a lot of variety. The other night we watched a 1953 movie called “Island In The Sky” starring John Wayne and a bunch of fine actors.  The storyline revolved around the Air Transport Command (ATC).  Wayne and his crew were flying back from a mission to Europe when he had to put the airplane down in the middle of nowhere in Labrador due to icing.  This being the movies (and John Wayne…), he was able to land the airplane on a snow-covered frozen lake with landing gear – not skis - intact!  It was a well-acted story and had a happy, if somewhat up-in-the-air ending (no pun intended).  Other flying buddies find the crew and supplies are dropped since they are down to about their last cracker after seven days of brutal cold.  The kicker is that the movie stops there – viewers are left hanging with no idea how the guys actually got out.  As Mike and I like to say when we sense a lack of progression in a TV or movie script: “hole in the story!”
     There is no “hole in the story” when it comes to the real ATC.  Those folks were responsible for delivering important supplies – freight, mail (and sometimes passengers) that had to get into the field ASAP – from the U.S. to points around the world. 
     The service was an outgrowth of the Army’s Ferrying Command, which was an airplane delivery system utilized when Britain entered WWII and needed American-built planes to fight the Nazis.  The major airlines of the day – Pan Am, Northwest Orient, Eastern, Western and United (only one of which is still flying today!) – contracted with the government to do the deliveries.  Some contracts were active through the Ferrying Command and some were set up through other military organizations. The whole initiative eventually got so convoluted and involved that in 1942 the Army took a step back and put the whole process under the new ATC.  The service would be responsible for all ferrying and transportation tasks except those directly necessary for combat operations.
   Although the ATC was considered to be a military airline, it was difficult to get personnel to fly the airplanes because trained military pilots were going into combat.  The ATC created a program to qualify civilian pilots – including airline pilots - and used WASPs (Women’s Air Service Pilots) as well. As the war continued, the ratio of military to civilian pilots flying for the ATC increased; by the end of the war, more than 80% of the pilots were military.
     The ATC really proved you could get there from here.  They flew to England from the East Coast by way of Canada (just like John Wayne’s ill-fated return trip!), to Australia from the West Coast via Hawaii and the South Pacific Islands, and to North Africa from Miami and other East Coast bases.  In the Americas, they flew to Alaska and the Aleutians across Canada and went south to Central and South America.  To get to China, they flew to Brazil from Miami, went across the Atlantic to Africa and continued across the Middle East to get to India, the entry point for China.  Keeping the CBI theater (China/Burma/India) supplied was a priority; China was completely cut off from regular imports by the Japanese invasions of China, Burma and parts of India.
     The airplanes were bare bones with no heat or pressurization. Flights lasted for many hours. Pilots wore heavy jackets, hats and gloves.  Vast expanses of the terrain they flew over were either rough or liquid.  Boredom was as big a threat to the crew's well-being as equipment failure or bad weather.
     The ATC remained active until the Air Force became a branch of the Armed Services in 1947 and established the Military Air Transport Service (MATS) to support the new Department of Defense.  The Military Airlift Command (MAC) replaced this military airline in 1965.  MAC was replaced by the Air Mobility Command post 1991. AMC continues to fly and also manages contracts with the civilian airlines.  Seems like basically not much has changed except the equipment and the name!

Just For Fun -
     Speaking of “Islands In The Sky,” Catalina Island’s little airport (privately owned but open to general aviation) is often referred to as  the “Airport in the Sky” because it is located close to the highest elevation on the island (1,602 feet).  The lone runway is pitched in the middle so it appears even shorter on short approach.
     In comparison (and no slam on Catalina…), the airport at the highest elevation is Qamdo Bangda Airport, in Tibet (but to be politically correct needs to be referred to as being in the People’s Republic of China).  It’s at 14,219 feet above sea level, just about half the height of Mt. Everest.  Another Tibetan airport is being built at 14,544 feet.  That one is scheduled to be complete in 2014.  What’s an additional football field length among friends?

COUNTDOWN TO ELECTION DAY 2 months 27 days - have you been doing your homework?

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

Friday, August 3, 2012

EAA AirVenture Oshkosh - Part II

     AirVenture ended on Sunday afternoon and airplanes and participants began the journey home – except for the RISE ABOVE Traveling Exhibit.  Before you could say “Tuskegee Airmen rock!” Terry and Jeanette Hollis were on the road taking the Traveling Exhibit to Ypsilanti, Michigan for the Thunder Over Michigan Air Show this weekend.
     After AirVenture ended, the CAF Red Tail Squadron team was tired but happy as they looked back on the previous week.  AirVenture is always a very busy time for the CAF and the Squadron but this one was particularly so because AirVenture chose to honor the Airmen along with other aviation veterans.
     The Squadron team had to coordinate having the Mustang moved from here to there and back again numerous times for photo ops with the Airmen.  They welcomed a number of Airmen to the Traveling Exhibit and helped them get set up to greet visitors.  They hosted a lunch for a group of Airmen and their spouses.  And while they were doing all this, they had to be sure the Mustang flew when it was supposed to during the program AND ensure that all visitors to the Traveling Exhibit got a warm welcome. Mission accomplished all around.
     It was a busy week, but the team is already planning for AV OSH 2013!

Here are some photographic highlights:
At Warbirds in Review on Friday, three airplanes that the Tuskegee Airmen flew during the WWII years were on display together – a Stearman bi-plane and T-6 (behind the Mustang) were used during training and, of course, they flew Mustangs like the Squadron’s red-tailed beauty.  The Airmen spoke about their experiences in the three aircraft.

 Tuskegee Airman Bob Ashby was one of the group of Airmen who flew to OSH - with a spouse or companion - via private jet.  Here he waves at the photographer as he looks around.

EAA President Rod Hightower and the Squadron’s Doug Rozendaal welcomed the group of Airmen to OSH.

The Airmen were honored at the Greatest Generation In The Air celebration.  From left William Thompson (partially hidden); Charles McGee; Harold Brown; James Harvey; Bob Ashby; George Boyd; Washington Ross.

 The P-51C Mustang and the custom Ford Mustang attracted a lot of attention when they were posed together!

 CAF CEO Steve Brown spoke about the CAF and the Squadron’s mission at a press conference.  Singer (and pilot) Aaron Tippin also attended.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch (so to speak…):

MMTers (Mustang Maintenance Team) John Beyl (on left) and Steve Kaminsen kept the Mustang beautiful with their secret weapon – Pledge - while newly certified Mustang pilot Bill Shepard preps for his next flight. 

Tuskegee Airman Charles McGee always makes an effort to spend time with us when he attends AV OSH.  Here he is flanked by Squadron Logistics Manager Marvona Welsh (on left) and Jeanette Hollis, one of the Squadron's drive team duo, as he sets up to meet his public.  People just LOVE to have their picture take with Col. McGee, and he always graciously obliges.

Finally, because this is really what it’s all about for the Squadron team, Jeanette Hollis poses with two young visitors who are delighted to show off their new dog tags, ssolid reminders of the inspiring story of the Tuskegee Airmen.

In case you missed it:

The Mustang is featured in the August issue of AircraftOwner Online Magazine.  The cover is fabulous and the story starts on page 8.

Ford Motor Company designed and created a highly customized “red-tailed” Mustang and donated it to the EAA so it could be auctioned at AirVenture Oshkosh with proceeds benefiting the EAA’s Young Eagles program.  Read about it here.

As mentioned earlier, the Mustang and RISE ABOVE Traveling Exhibit are in Ypsilanti, Michigan for the Thunder Over Michigan Air Show this weekend.  Be sure to stop and see us if you're lucky enough to attend.

Countdown to election day:  3 months and 3 days

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