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 22, 2013

Farewell, Fat Albert - and thank you

     While we were still in the Florida Keys last week, a strong low pressure system went through, bringing with it rain and very high wind.  Since sitting by the pool became an exercise in literally holding onto your hat, Mike and I decided to take a drive to find two local things that we'd heard about - little deer and big blimps.
     The Keys is home to a type of deer that are very small.  Called Key Deer, they stand about waist high and look like standard white-tails except for their size.  They are protected and freely wander the roadways and back country of Big Pine Key.  At least, we heard that's what they did.  We never saw one, but looking for them brought us to the Blue Hole, the largest fresh water lake in the keys.  Being from Minnesota, I thought calling this pond a "lake" was very humorous, but since our lakes do not typically have alligators - and this one has at least two - I figured we could just split the difference.
     Since the deer remained elusive, we continued south on US 1 to Blimp Road.  When we drove to Key West a couple of days earlier, we had seen two of the large unmanned aerostat blimps hovering overhead, but didn't have time to track down their home on the ground during that outing.  This visit, we knew we probably couldn't get into the Naval air station but wanted to try to get a closer look at the blimp(s) anyway.   Since it was so windy, one of the cream-colored blimps was visible from the road riding out the weather on the ground.  Unfortunately, our little digital cameras couldn't really do it justice so the photo below is not mine.
photo courtesy
     A little research revealed that the blimp(s) are nicknamed "Fat Albert" and:
  • are 175 feet long and 58 feet across with an 81-foot tail wing span; the envelope is filled with helium
  • are typically tethered at between 8,000 and 10,000 feet over Cudjoe Key although they are approved to go up to 15,000 feet
  • carry an underbelly payload of radar and computers for defense and weather forecasting purposes
  • Radio Marti, the American radio station that broadcasts news and information to Cuba, sends its signal from Fat Albert
  • have served as "eyes" over the Keys for 33 years, assisting in the war on drugs and looking for illegal aliens.  
     The "cool factor" of these blimps is very high which is why even though I only saw them in the air and on the ground for a brief time, I was saddened to hear that this program will be deflated on March 15 of this year after 33 years overhead.  These types of blimps are also in use along the American/Mexican border in the Southwest so maybe these Alberts will just be reassigned.  Many of the local residents of the Keys are not happy to be losing "their" balloons, but a signature campaign to get the Navy to agree to keep them in the Keys was not successful.
      The fact that the Fat Alberts were used to look for illegals and drugs reminded me of an incident that occurred in the Keys in 1982.  One Sunday afternoon, the U.S. Border Patrol decided to check every car leaving the Keys for illegal aliens and contraband.  Given that many, many people go to the Keys for a weekend getaway and leave on Sunday afternoon to go back to their homes on the mainland, it's no wonder that the resulting traffic backup was more than 18 miles long.  After a couple of days, the officers decided to also check IDs to be sure that those leaving the island were U.S. citizens.  This move left the local Keys government officials fuming so the mayor of Key West  - a free-wheeling town noted for doing things its way - decided that since the U.S. government was treating the Keys like a foreign country, the Keys would secede and become a foreign country.
      The formation of the "Conch Republic" was covered world-wide and the negative publicity caused the checkpoint to be taken down after six days.  The Keys went back to being part of the United States, but you can see Conch Republic flags flying on private flag poles up and down the islands.

Where is the rig this week?
The RISE ABOVE Traveling Exhibit is open from 2-5 p.m. today at Wooddale High School in Memphis, Tennessee.  The public is welcome during those hours but must call 812-240-2560 to schedule an appointment to see the "RISE ABOVE" movie.  This unusual requirement is because the Traveling Exhibit is on high school grounds and the public is not typically invited under those circumstances.

Next week, the RISE ABOVE Traveling Exhibit will be at the Carolinas Aviation Museum in Charlotte, NC.  Ages 18 and under will be admitted to the Traveling Exhibit AND the Museum at no charge.  Those over 18 will pay admission to the Museum but admission to the Traveling Exhibit will be included at no additional cost.   The Squadron's red-tailed P-51C Mustang will not be accompanying the Traveling Exhibit to this event, but the "Swamp Fox," another privately-owned P-51, will be there.

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, February 15, 2013

The Low Blow - the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935

Your intrepid blogger is visiting the Florida Keys with Mike this week, my first visit ever.   As I am always intrigued by weather phenomena, today's blog is about a very big hurricane that struck Florida before the days of weather tracking and warning systems.

     The Florida Keys are today very heavily commercialized with hundreds of hotels, restaurants and water-related entertainment opportunities (think sport fishing, diving and boating).  Sure, you can still find the occasional public beach and there are a number of causeways that parallel Highway 1 for people to stroll or fish from, but, for the most part, automobile traffic is heavy and and public views of the water from land are few and far between.
     It wasn't always like this.  Until the early 1900s, only the very rich vacationed there (arriving by boat/yacht) and the relatively few locals earned a living by fishing and running hotels and eateries that catered to the visitors.  What changed the Keys' main industry focus to tourism was that Florida hotelier Henry Flagler decided to build a railroad through the Keys so that "general" tourism could find a foothold there (and people would stay in his hotels).  That railroad was completed in 1912 and the people came.  These days, about 80,000 people call the Keys home, with another 40,000 visiting annually.
     A note about geography:  The Florida Keys are in essence a series of small islands that extend south of the Florida mainland for about 100 miles.  They are arranged in the shape of a comma, with the tip - Key West - being the southernmost point of the United States. Today, a highway connects the Keys but for many years the only way in and out was by rail.
     In the summer of 1935, many WWI veterans were working as government employees to build a road on and over the Keys to replace the railroad which by this time was bankrupt. They lived in three work camps in the Middle Keys which were set up in areas where the beach was wide enough to accommodate some buildings. In these lean economic years, the men earned a paycheck on top of having room (in tents and plywood barracks) and board provided.
     At the end of August, a tropical low in the Caribbean Sea gathered strength and worked its way west.  Storm warnings were issued over the Labor Day weekend, but the strength of the storm was not known.  It turned out to be the strongest hurricane to strike the United States to that date.  The storm's barometric pressure was measured at 26.35 millibars, the lowest ever recorded in the country - a record that still stands. 
     With no modern tracking systems, when the storm headed for Keys and intensified to a Category 5 hurricane, no one knew what was in store. Based on the initial severe storm warnings, the locals had boarded up windows, stored water, cooked food to last for a few days and gotten ready to ride it out.  The government sent a locomotive and some cars into the Keys to pick up their employees and others but due to a series of unforeseen events, the train was delayed and got there just after 8 p.m.  The 18-foot storm surge hit 20 minutes later.  There was no place to hide and no way for the train to proceed.  The rail cars were swept off the tracks as the water swirled over the sea-level land.  More than 300 veterans died, along with 200+ residents of the Keys.  The Middle Keys were denuded of foliage and anything else that was not tied down.
     Sadly, in the aftermath as bodies were found, they were not allowed to be shipped back to the mainland so had to be cremated in the Keys.   Families were denied the comfort of a memorial service and burial for their loved ones.
     Two years later, a monument was built by the WPA and installed in Islamorada.  The ashes of more than 300 victims of the storm are interred within it.  The bas relief carving of the stylized palm trees and waves give a hint as to the fury of the storm.

     There are two stand-alone "tables" behind the monument.  One describes the storm's approach and immediate aftermath. The second gives a history of the monument's construction and dedication.  It uses a copy of what appears to be an official listing of all of the veterans who died that terrible night, including their WWI unit and rank.  Although it  is in very small print, it packs an emotional punch.  That list is shown below on the right side.

     The monument is at mile marker 81.8 on U.S. Highway 1.

    It occurred to me while visiting the monument and reading more about that storm that as terrible as Andrew, Katrina, Sandy and so many hurricanes have been in the past 25 years or so, the human loss of life has most often been due to people ignoring the warnings to get out ahead of time.  We're so lucky to have the warning systems and evacuation procedures in place.  Those who lost loved ones in the 1935 Labor Day hurricane would have given anything to have had their folks benefit then from what we have today.

The CAF Red Tai

Friday, February 8, 2013

Willa Brown (Coffey) Chappell

   Last week's blog subject was Illinois aviation pioneer Cornelius Coffey.  He met this week's blog subject, Willa Brown, when she was his student at the Curtiss-Wright School of Aviation in Chicago.   

     When she decided to learn to fly, she enrolled at his Coffey Flying School at Harlem Airport just outside of Chicago and became the first black woman to earn her pilot's license in the United States.  [Chicagoan Bessie Coleman was the first black woman to EVER earn a pilot's license, but she had to go to France in order to do it as no stateside flight school would enroll her.] A teacher with a master's degree in Business Administration, Brown soon partnered with Coffey in life by marrying him and in business by helping him with his flying school.
     It was the late '30s and war drums in America were starting to beat.  The U.S. Army Air Corps knew it did not have enough pilots to fight in a war so Congress and President Roosevelt touted the idea that civilian flight schools should train future pilots.  In 1939, the Coffeys, along with friends Dale White and Enoc Waters started the National Airmen's Association as a way to help give "official" legitimacy to the push to include black pilots in the upcoming civilian flight training programs.
     In late 1939, the new pilot training sites for civilians - formally known as the Civilian Flight Training Program - were announced; seven were designated for black students.  Of those, the only one that was not on a college campus was at Harlem Airport.
     The newly renamed Coffey School of Aeronautics kicked into high gear.  Cornelius would direct flight training and maintain the aircraft used for training (two purchased Piper Cubs and two WACO PT-14s on loan from the Curtiss-Wright School of Aviation).  Willa would coordinate the entire program and also teach ground school at a local high school.
     Each trainee received 35 hours of flight time.  The Coffey and Tuskegee schools were the only black programs offering all four levels of instruction - basic and advanced flight training, cross-country flight training and flight instruction training.  About 200 students trained at Coffey over a seven-year period
       [I was able to find the names of just two of the Coffey students who would go on to military flight training at Tuskegee:  Quentin Smith trained for the B-25 program and never saw battle because that bomber group was not deployed.  He remained an aviation enthusiast even as he earned a doctorate in education.  He worked in various educational systems and also served as president of the Gary (Ind.) Regional Airport Authority.  Bev Dunjill got into the Tuskegee program just as the war was ending.  After mustering out, he reenlisted in 1949 and was an F-86 jet combat instructor during the Korean war. ]
     Postwar, the Coffeys ended their marriage, but continued to contribute as individuals.  Cornelius kept working at the Harlem Airport, but his heart remained in the classroom teaching young people so he spent the following decades teaching aviation mechanics in high school and at a local area college.  Willa had earned her commercial pilot's license in 1939.  She earned her aviation mechanics license in 1943, thus becoming the first woman - never mind black woman - in the United States to have both of those licenses.  Perhaps because of her successful work with the CFTP and Civil Air Patrol, she developed a taste for politics and decided to run for Congress, losing both times.
     Cornelius Coffey passed away in 1994 and Willa Brown Coffey Chappell died in 1992.
Postscript:   The Cornelius R. Coffey Aviation Education Foundation was established at the American Airlines Maintenance Academy in Chicago to help train a younger generation of high school and college students interested in aviation. It is a fitting legacy to this intrepid American aviator and all who helped him reach so many young flyer-wannabes. 

What's Going On This Week
The RISE ABOVE Traveling Exhibit and the red-tailed P-51C Mustang will not have a public appearance again until the last week of the month;  more details to follow.  Feel free to bookmark our online calendar page so you'll always know what's going on with our wonderful educational tools:

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, February 1, 2013

Cornelius Coffey And The Tuskegee Airmen

     When I visited the Chanute Air Museum in Rantoul, Illinois last summer, I mentioned in the blog entries that followed that I'd probably be doing a story on Illinois aviator Cornelius Coffey.  Since this is Black History Month, it seems like a good time to make good on my intentions.
     Like so many young American men in the early 1900s, Cornelius Coffey was bitten by the aviation bug early and hard.  He had his first airplane ride in his home state of Alabama in 1916 when he was just 13.  However, unlike his white counterparts, his skin color set up a lot of obstacles to overcome in his quest to become an aviator.
Cornelius Coffey
      Coffey moved to Chicago in 1925 to attend auto mechanics school.  He and a buddy named John Robinson both wanted to fly, but the local fight schools would not accept black students.  Highly motivated, they built a one-seater airplane - powered by a motorcycle engine - and taught themselves to leave the surly bonds of earth (if you don't know where that last phrase comes from, click here for a wonderful poem about the grandness of flight.)
      Both men completed auto mechanics school and were employed by Emil Mack, a Chevrolet dealer who happened to be white.  Coffey and Robinson felt the next step in their plan to work in the aviation field would be to learn more about flight and airplane mechanics, so in 1929 they applied to and were accepted into the Curtiss Wright School of Aviation in Chicago.  Even though they had prepaid their tuition, they were turned away when the school discovered they were black.  Although the school offered to refund the tuition, Mack threatened to sue the school if the two were not admitted and the school backed down.
       Coffey and Robinson graduated from Curtiss Wright first and second in their class two years later in 1931.   Coffey also took and passed the federal aviation mechanics exam within weeks of graduating.  In an interesting turn of events, the Curtiss Wright School of Aviation invited them back to teach all-black classes, which they did. 
       Even with this acknowledgment of their skills, their skin color continued to trump their knowledge level, and only Akers airport would let them in to fly and work on aircraft on their own time. When Akers soon closed, they teamed up with other black aviation enthusiasts - and a couple of white pilots who had flown out of Akers - to form the Challenger Air Pilots Association.  The "Challenger" referred to the Curtiss R-600 Challenger, a 6-cylinder air-cooled radial aircraft engine of the era.
The Curtiss R-600 Challenger
         Unable to find an airstrip where they could all fly from, the group bought raw land in Robbins, an all-black town outside of Chicago.  Working together, they cleared the land and did some rough leveling to make an air strip.  They even built a rudimentary hangar for their three aircraft.  The airstrip was used for about a year before a fierce thunderstorm destroyed the hangar and flipped the airplanes.  The group was back to square one.
     While the Robbins "airport" was operating, a man named Fred Schumacher had visited it.  Liking what he saw, he invited the group to relocate to 140 acres his brother had purchased in Oak Lawn for the purpose of developing his own airport.  The Challenger group initially turned down the offer but after the storm, they approached Fred Schumacher to see if the offer still held.
     The Schumacher land was already looking like an airfield, with four airstrips outlined in the sod. There were even an office and hangar in place along Harlem Avenue.  Schumacher agreed to rent the lower end of the airport to the Challenger group but insisted they stay there and not mix with the white pilots, whose facility was at the other end of the airport.  So it was that while the pilots all shared the air, they were divided by skin color on the ground.
This is an aerial shot of Harlem Airport taken in 1951.  I was intrigued by the "star" shape made by all of the airstrips - it must have be interesting for pilots to figure out where the other active aircraft were located, considering all of the airstrips crossed the middle.
      The airport was now named Harlem Airport and Coffey was soon asked to do recertifications of white pilots' airplanes after overhauls.  By now, he and Robinson had parted company and Coffey was able to earn a living as an airplane mechanic at Harlem. He also opened the Coffey Flying School.
     Knowing what it was like to be discriminated against because of skin color, he taught blacks and whites together and even had a female in class once in a while.  In 1938, one of those females was Willa Brown, who would marry Coffey and play a role in the training of future Tuskegee Airmen.
     Next week's blog will continue the story of Cornelius Coffey and his wife Willa Brown Coffey, America's first commercially licensed female African-American pilot. 

We're On The Road!
     Next week also marks the beginning of the CAF Red Tail Squadron's "season" with the first stop being Hank Aaron Stadium in Mobile, Alabama.  The RISE ABOVE Traveling Exhibit will be open to the public there from 2 to 4:30 p.m.  Wednesday through Friday, February 6-8.  The Traveling Exhibit will host numerous school groups in the mornings.
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