Tuskegee Airman Col. Charles McGee gives a thumbs-up as he celebrates his 99th birthday with a flight aboard a private jet Saturday in Virginia. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Pete Marovich for The Washington Post
Climbing to 16,000 feet over the Virginia countryside Saturday, Charles McGee looked intense but at ease. From the co-pilot’s seat, he gazed at the horizon, the Potomac River to his left.
It was one day after his 99th birthday, 76 years after his first plane ride in Tuskegee, Alabama, and decades since he served as a pioneering fighter pilot in World War II, after the U.S. government long held black people lacked the mental capacity to fly airplanes.
Now, with fellow Air Force veteran Glenn Gonzales in the pilot’s seat to his left, McGee put his hands on the yoke in front of him and began gently guiding the blue-and-white HondaJet through the morning sky, easing it a bit to the right, then to the left, getting a feel for the aircraft as Gonzales kept his fingers on the controls as well.
Before setting out for a day’s journey that was part epic birthday celebration, part reunion with machines he used to destroy stereotypes as much as enemy aircraft, McGee looked at a family portrait sitting above the fireplace at his brick home in Bethesda, Maryland.
There was his wife and eldest daughter, who hadn’t been able to join him at an air base in Kansas after he returned home – even after his wartime heroics – because housing remained segregated. And there were his two other beloved children, who have also lived their lives inspired by a man with standards and heart.
His son Ronald is a retired pilot for Continental and later United Airlines.
“He had a high school counselor who said he’d make a good truck driver,” McGee said. “So he went to college and got an aerospace engineering degree.”
Walking out the door, headed toward the corporate terminal at Dulles International Airport, McGee told daughter Yvonne he’d see her later.
Waiting a beat, he added: “Hopefully.”
McGee does not cede the controls easily, and promptly gave the Cadillac Escalade driver a series of gentle instructions on how to drive.
Walking near the frigid runway, McGee, beaming, circled the corporate jet like he used to with the P-39 Cobras and P-51 Mustangs he flew over Italy; the later iteration of the Mustang he flew in the Korean War; and the reconnaissance jet he flew in Vietnam.
“Colonel, are you ready to go flying?” asked Vincent Mickens, an executive at the National Business Aviation Association, who came to know McGee when the group honored him and other Tuskegee Airmen. Mickens and Gonzales, founder and CEO of Jet It, an executive jet timeshare firm, came up with the idea for the flight at lunch a couple weeks back.
“Am I ready to go flying? You got an airplane?” asked McGee.