Tuskegee Airman Charles McGee has died at age 102 on Sunday, according to AP News. McGee was a decorated veteran who helped shine light on the racism Black pilots were facing at home while trying to fight for that same home in battle.
AP reported McGee began his flying career after World War II by entering an ‘experimental program’ for Black pilot candidates seeking positions in the Army Air Corps. After passing his examination, he was sent to the Tuskegee Army Field in Alabama. According to his biography in the National Aviation Hall of Fame, he joined the all-Black 332nd Fighter Group, 12th Air Force nicknamed the “Red Tails.”
“You could say that one of the things we were fighting for was equality. Equality of opportunity. We knew we had the same skills, or better,” he told AP News in 1995.
By the time he came back home, he had flown 136 missions over Europe. AP reported that out of the 900s men who trained at Tuskegee while McGee was in attendance, only 450 were deployed overseas and 150 lost their lives.
In recent years the Tuskegee Airmen have been the subject of books, movies and documentaries highlighting their courage in the air and the doubts they faced on the ground because of their race. In 2007 a Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award from Congress, was issued to recognize their “unique military record that inspired revolutionary reform in the Armed Forces.”
McGee remained in the Army Air Corps, later the U.S. Air Force, and served for 30 years. He flew low-level bombing and strafing missions during the Korean War and returned to combat again during the Vietnam War. The National Aviation Hall of Fame says his 409 aerial fighter combat missions in three wars remains a record.
He retired as a colonel in the Air Force in 1973, then earned a college degree in business administration and worked as a business executive. He was accorded an honorary commission promoting him to the one-star rank of brigadier general as he turned 100. Another event marked his centennial year: He flew a private jet between Frederick, Maryland, and Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
McGee also received a standing ovation from Congress upon being introduced in President Trump’s State of the Union address in 2020.
Air Force Magazine reported McGee not only helped grow the Tuskegee Airmen Association but also stayed in touch with the Air Force to continue motivating the Airmen who came after him. McGee received the Air Force Association’s Lifetime Achievement Award, a Congressional Gold Medal and was inducted as a National Aeronautics Association Elder Statesman of Aviation, according to Air Force magazine.
Many took to social media to honor the national hero. “A life well lived is an understatement as applied to Brig. Gen. Charles McGee. As a #TuskegeeAirman & combat aviator with 409 missions, his years in uniform were nothing shy of heroic, and his example of integrity, service & excellence endures,” read a tweet from Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr.