The "Air Force's Black Ceiling" is a view of diversity in the Air Force from one man's over 28 years in the Air Force. This view begins with his perspectives and insights as an Air Force Academy cadet and continues with his progression through company and field grade ranks. It also includes special insights gained while serving on the Secretary of Defense's Diversity Task Force as the Deputy Director of the Defense Business Practice Implementation Board. The author's view of diversity has been bolstered by face to face interviews with five former African American Air Force four-star generals and numerous current and former African American generals in the Air Force and the Army. The author's views are also influenced by numerous discussions with former graduates of the US Air Force Academy, his work with the Tuskegee Airmen chapters and his own detailed research into the biographies of former Air Force Chiefs of Staff and former Strategic, Tactical and Air Combat Command Commanders. The title might imply that the "Black Ceiling" has been put in place on purpose by senior Air Force leaders... the reader will find out that isn't the case. The reader however will find out that there are very distinct remnants of an intricate system of exclusionary development practices, cultural practices, stereotypes and biases that have served to keep the ceiling in place for African American men throughout the Air Force's existence.
Ivan Thompson is the CEO of Launch Productions. He is a singer/songwriter, actor, author, business consultant, and inventor. Ivan’s books have garnered rave reviews and are available on Amazon as well as all major retailer websites. Ivan has published multiple Christian titles, an exceptional book about diversity in the Air Force, a fitness book and a book to help new writers become published authors. Ivan’s audiobooks are also available on Audible.
Ivan has over 25 years consulting senior military and civilian leaders. He has conducted senior leadership off-sites, strategic planning sessions and served as the Deputy Director of the Defense Business Practice Implementation Board. As the Deputy, he helped facilitate and lead Task Groups for the Secretary of Defense comprised of senior DoD civilians and retired and active Fortune 500 CEOs. As a singer/songwriter, he has performed the National Anthem for the Los Angeles Lakers, Dodgers, LA Kings, St. Louis Rams, LA Sparks, NASCAR, NCAA and was a guest soloist on the Bobby Jones Gospel show and Tom Joyner show. He has performed across the US and Europe as Tour Director of the Air Force’s Tops in Blue traveling entertainment team.
This chapter is devoted to the cause of securing a retroactive promotion to Brigadier General for Col Charles E. McGee. Col McGee is a 95-year-old Tuskegee Airmen that has the distinction of being the only person ever to fly 100 or more combat missions in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. He has 409 total combat missions, was the first African American to command a Wing in the United States, commanded a maintenance group, a missile group and two different flying squadrons. With these credentials Col McGee would have been in shoe-in for the rank of brigadier general. Unfortunately at that time the Air Force did not readily give out that type of rank to black officers. This whole chapter makes a case to correct an inequity that is over four decades old.
The Air Force’s Black Ceiling
HANG A STAR ON THAT MAN: COL. CHARLES E. MCGEE
I first heard of Col. Charles E. McGee when I was a lieutenant colonel, with probably 20 years of military service. I was attending a Tuskegee Airmen convention and I was told that a black man held the record for combat sorties and that the number of combat sorties that he had flown over the course of three wars—WWII, Korea and Vietnam—was 409. I literally said, “Impossible!”
As I was doing research for this book I found out that he does not hold the record for highest number for combat sorties; however, he is the only fighter pilot known to have 100 or more combat sorties in WWII, Korea and Vietnam—409 total (Haulman, A Short History of the Tuskegee Airmen , 2015).
The sole purpose of this chapter is to solicit support from anyone who can help to pin a star on this man. I will show in this chapter that he deserves to have a star, not merely because of his amazing record in combat, but because he filled all the squares that were needed for any person of any race to be promoted to brigadier general. Col. McGee filled all the squares that are typically found in a brigadier general’s resume: commanded multiple flying squadrons, a support squadron, served as a chief of maintenance for a flying wing (which may have equated to a logistics group in recent Air Force organizational constructs), base commander for a missile base, Wing Commander, was a combat veteran, led a flying squadron in combat, was acknowledged for demonstrating heroism in combat with 25 Air Medals and flew 100 or more combat sorties in each of three major wars—a singularly unique feat heralded by the Air Force Chief of Staff.
Col. McGee was an unfortunate casualty of the Air Force’s culture at that time, but the Air Force can remedy that with a promotion after retirement while this great man is still alive. President Bill Clinton hung a fourth star on the original commander of the Tuskegee Airmen, Benjamin Davis Jr. who retired as a three-star. There have been 208 four-star generals in the history of the U.S. Air Force. Of these, 199 achieved that rank while on active duty, three were promoted after retirement, and one was promoted posthumously (Historical Office of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, 2015) ( Secretary of the Air Force, 2012), (Air Force Historical Studies Office, 2013). Though it is clearly not without precedent, I am not seeking support for a four-star promotion but a one-star. Nor am I asking for anything that this great officer and gentleman does not deserve. Col. McGee has no idea that I am doing this and I’m certain he would not have approved. He has accepted “his lot” as it were and joyfully serves as an ambassador, now in his mid-90s, making speaking appearances around the world touting the merits of Air Force service and the great accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen.
Again I propose that giving Col. McGee a star after retirement will correct a great oversight and injustice. No white fighter pilot officer who was a two-time commander of a flying squadron, served as a Chief of Maintenance for a major fighter wing, a base commander of a missile base, a Wing Commander, who had a Legion of Merit with oak leaf cluster, 25 Air medals, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, a Bronze Star, and flew a still-existing Air Force record 100 or more combat missions in WWII, Korea and Vietnam (409: 136 WWII, 100 Korea, 173 Vietnam) would have been passed over for brigadier general (Godfrey, 2000).
While I was looking up references for Col McGee’s accomplishments, I stumbled onto the website for the National Museum of the Air Force. I found a section on the website that honored members who had flown over 100 combat missions in Vietnam. Sadly, this awesome repository of Air Force history mentioned nothing about Col. McGee’s membership in the 100 combat mission club—he had 173 combat sorties. Nor did it mention his heroism and leadership during the Vietnam War’s Tet Offensive.
On January 31, 1968, at the start of the Tet Offensive, Col. McGee was the Commander of the 16th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron (16th TRS) at Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base near Saigon. When the Tet Offensive broke out, most of the squadron pilots were at a walled compound off base. There were only six pilots on base, since there was no movement allowed off base. For three days they flew all of the squadron’s missions, including bomber escort in unarmed RF-4C aircraft. Col. McGee said, “They didn’t lose a mission.” (Historynet.com, 2006) (Gathering of Eagles Foundation, n.d.)
Col. McGee’s tenacity and leadership as the 16th TRS Commander was on clear display for three days before the security restrictions were lifted to allow the pilots that were off base, back onto the base (Godfrey, 2000) (Smith, 2008). In the process he flew a significant number of back-to-back sorties that helped contribute to his total of 173 in Vietnam (Smith, 2008).
The National Museum of the Air Force website section honoring 100 mission heroes of Vietnam not only failed to mention Col. McGee’s great accomplishments during the Vietnam War, his solitary distinction as being the only person in Air Force history with 100 combat missions in three wars, but it also featured him in a picture—with his back turned as he finished his traditional final ride as Commander of the 16th TRS. I am highlighting this slight as it is typical of the view from the vantage point of the black officer. Air Force history seems to acknowledge, like the picture on the site, that black people were there and played a role, but diminishes the significance of their impact. This is just a small example of things that need to be set right to make our great Air Force even greater. Righting an oversight like this is exactly what pinning a star on the shoulders of Col. Charles McGee will do. It will bring another needed dimension to the picture that is Air Force history. No pun intended but it will be like taking the black and white classic movies and adding color to them. Air Force history will be seen in a new refreshing light with the full story of black heroes being told, not above, not in a separate black history section, but alongside those of every other Air Force hero. (National Museum of the US Air Force, 2015)
The specifics of Col. McGee’s illustrious career as gathered from his biography, the Pennsylvania Veterans Museum and the National Aviation Hall of Fame are as follows:
• Downed one German Focke Wulf FW-190 victory with a P-51 as part of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen
• Commander, 44th Fighter Bomber Squadron, Clark Field, Philippines
• Commander, 7230th Support Squadron (Jupiter missile support) and Base Commander Gioia del Colle Air Base
• Director of Maintenance Engineering for Air Force Communication Service Commander, 1840th Air Base Wing, Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base
• *First black officer to command a stateside Air Force Wing and Base
• Flight time in various cargo, bomber, and fighter aircraft: P-39, P-47, P-51, AT-10, TB-25J, C-47, B-29, F-51, T-33, F-80, RF-4C, F4-E
• 409 combat missions across three major wars (409: 136 WWII, 100 Korea, 173 Vietnam)
(Smith, 2008), (The National Aviation Hall of Fame, 2011), (Pennsylvania Veterans Museum), (Godfrey, 2000)
Col. McGee was an Air Force hero that the Air Force wasn’t ready for; primarily because he was black. In his daughter’s biography entitled, Tuskegee Airman, 4th Edition, it was noted that “stateside commands were not available to black officers in 1954. Chappie James broke the color barrier with a command at Otis Air Base near Boston in 1956” (Smith, 2008). If Col. McGee were a non-minority with his flying record and track record, I’m convinced he would have thrived in command of “stateside” units. Col. McGee was an extremely versatile officer who held leadership positions in aircraft maintenance, air defense, missile support, and communications. He flew propeller, jet fighter, bomber, and cargo aircraft. He was instrumental in helping future astronaut Charles Borman return to flying status (Smith, 2008). He also fought to give him the highest ratings possible, ratings that he deserved, but were against the existing norms—ratings that helped him successfully compete for astronaut training.
Despite being shuttled back into aircraft maintenance and other ground-based duties after each major war he was always successful when the Air Force snatched him back into combat flying service. At 95 years old Col. McGee is one of the greatest living American military aviators and one of the most decorated. His combat sortie record of 100 sorties or more in three different major wars may never be broken. His true greatness was only capped by the racism of a newly integrated Air Force. At 95, he is still a great ambassador for the Air Force and its mission.
Hanging a star on Colonel Charles E. McGee while he is alive and still able to share the good news of Air Force service and the success of the Tuskegee Airmen will not only right an injustice that is over 40 years old but help educate non-minority pilots, stir enthusiasm about flying careers amongst minorities and honor a deserving Air Force hero while he is alive.
Webster’s Dictionary defines honor as follows “a showing of usually merited respect : recognition <pay honor to our founder>; one whose worth brings respect or fame : credit <an honor to the profession>; an evidence or symbol of distinction: an exalted title or rank…” (“Honor.” Merriam-Webster.com. , 2016) I think each of these definitions fits Col McGee. Col McGee’s accomplishments merit respect and have brought respect even fame not only to the Tuskegee Airmen but to the United States Air Force. His accomplishments indeed merit the appropriate “evidence” of their significance or the commensurate “symbol of distinction” which is the silver star “rank” worn by a brigadier general.
There is a biblical adage that says “Render to all their dues: to whom tribute is due, tribute; to whom custom, custom; to whom fear, fear; to whom honour, honour.” (Blueletterbible Darby Translation, 2016) I believe it is time to render honor to this great man while he can receive it and enjoy it.
If you have the ability to help honor this great man, please step forward and take the lead, the initiative to make this star a reality. The Tuskegee Airmen have done all they can do to establish their legacy it is our generation’s turn to carry it into the future.