The parking lot at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site (NHS) is poised above still-active Moton Field in Tuskegee, Alabama. Moton Field is where the pilots who would become known at Tuskegee Airmen took primary flight training. This quasi-birds' eye view is a great way to get oriented to the buildings that house the history.
The Museum is in Hangar 1. The original Hangar 2 burned down, but another "Hanger 2" on the site houses the brick control tower. (Another part of the museum is scheduled to open in that building this fall.) There are a number of surviving outbuildings onsite as well so it helps to read the plaques at the top before going down the hill to see everything.
The Park Service also tried to give visitors a sense of what is missing. I was impressed with how effectively they "displayed" two of the now-missing barrack buildings.
Upon entering the FREE museum, you're greeted by smiling people sitting at a desk. This day, National Park Services Guide Carla Graves (right) and volunteer Kathleen Colson were there to answer questions and distribute brochures and other materials. There are a few items for sale (proceeds benefit the Site), but that's pretty low key. Walking the site is fairly easy but, if needed, wheelchairs are available on a first come/first served basis.
The information in the lobby area sets the stage for what you'll find in the museum just around the corner. I was personally delighted to see two of the large pictographs that were featured on the Rose Parade float that honored the Tuskegee Airmen on January 1, 2010. (I went to Pasadena and worked on the float.) Made of seeds and other organic materials and measuring about 5 feet tall, that's Chief Flight Instructor Charles Alfred "Chief" Anderson on the left and Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. on the right. The museum features lots of information on those two men, both of whom played such key roles in the success of the pilot training program at Moton Field.
One map in the lobby shows the states from which the aviation cadets came; many hailed from northern states. Once you're in Alabama yourself, you start to get an idea of what it probably have felt like for them to come to the deep South - with its regional traditions and racial attitudes - after growing up in areas of the country that had more liberal attitudes toward black Americans.
This quote from a lobby display sums up the pressure put on the pilot cadets to succeed and helps visitors to the NHS better appreciate what they are about to see:
About the first thing you notice after entering the museum are the parachutes hanging from the ceiling. Parachutes were periodically unfolded to dry out and this is exactly how they were hung during training.
This type of Piper Cub was used in pre-war flight training as part of the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) at the Tuskegee Institute. Charles Alfred "Chief" Anderson gave First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt a ride in a J-3 in 1941 when she visited the Institute to review the CPTP and other programs. That experience cemented her belief that black Americans should be given the opportunity to fly and fight as military pilots. She was instrumental in urging the policy changes that gave the Tuskegee flight training program its start.
The P-17 Stearman was the biplane that gave the cadets their first taste of flying. In all, they got 60 hours of flight training. The P-17 was sturdy while also being fairly easy to fly so the inevitable hard landings wouldn't break it. (Don't laugh - at one point, the powers-that-be decided to use Fairchild P-19s to train the cadets, but those airplanes' plywood midsections had a tendency to split if the aircraft bounced during landing (and sometimes even if the landing was a good one.) Moton also required a faster rate of climb than the P-19 could safely manage so the Stearman was brought back as the primary trainer of choice.)
There's also a LINK trainer. This workhorse flight simulator gave cadets the opportunity to hone their skills in the air while remaining firmly on the ground. This one is missing the bellows system that made the sim experience feel so much like the real thing.
This photo of the museum floor doesn't begin to show the full scope of the information presented in the museum or how creatively it is done. We'll delve into the nuts and bolts of the cadets' experiences at Tuskegee next week.
Where's the rig this week?
We have a quiet weekend coming up, but next week the RISE ABOVE Traveling Exhibit will be in Houston, Texas. Starting Tuesday, March 12 and going through Saturday, March 16, the Traveling Exhibit will be set up and open to the public at the 1940 Air Terminal Museum at Hobby Airport. Hours are 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. each day.
The CAF Red Tail Squadron is volunteer-driven 501c3 organization that operates as part of the Commemorative Air Force. For more information about the Squadron and its educational mission, visit www.redtail.0rg.