Lessons From the Tuskegee Experiment
I researched the Tuskegee Airmen with the belief that there had to be elements of their “experiment” that made them successful and that if these elements could be identified, they could be extracted and replicated. This is a crucial premise: there are lessons hidden in the Tuskegee Airmen “experiment” that if extracted and replicated can help the Air Force produce high caliber minority fighter pilots in large numbers as was done 70 years ago.
It might seem striking to compare Tuskegee Airmen fighter pilot production to Air Force pilot production, because the Tuskegee Airmen were part of the Army Air Corps, but it is a key distinction because the Tuskegee Airmen were given the same standards but were in effect treated as a separate unit, because of segregation, and as a result had different fighter pilot ecosystem if you will than any flying unit in Air Force history.
I believe their different ecosystem though is the starting place to finding what made the Tuskegee Airmen successful. I do believe I have found several success factors that are still relevant for today’s training of minority pilots in the Air Force. Most of them were anecdotal or seemingly common sense and sat right there on the surface to be gleaned. The challenge was taking these hidden-in-plain-sight success principles and finding the empirical explanations to back them up.
For example it would be fairly easy for me as a black officer to understand why black pilots being trained in an all-black unit, with black mentors and one of the greatest black Air Force heroes as their leader would have more camaraderie and be more successful in training than in a setting typical of Air Force pilot training during my career. During my career, a black officer/pilot would have been in a predominately white unit with very few same race peers, little or no same race mentors, and no senior role models of the same race, in a small town in Mississippi, Oklahoma, Texas, etc. The challenge that I will answer in this book is to show empirically, from research what is painfully obvious to me as I look at the Tuskegee Airmen.
These critical success factors are: making an investment in flying training prior to Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training (SUPT), creating a more supportive, familiar culture in flying training, having African American role models serving in flying leadership and instructor pilot positions and a commitment to deliberate development of minority pilots and cultivating an excitement in the African American community about becoming an Air Force pilot….
Lt Gen Hopper also stated in his interview that when he was an instructor pilot (IP) in the 1970s, the Air Force conducted an experiment in which it clustered minority (IPs) at Vance AFB. It then clustered the minority pilot trainees based on the following construct. Pilot candidates were selected from an AFROTC detachment (at University X) that was noted for its success in producing successful minority pilot candidates and the Air Force Academy (also noted for its success rate). Minority graduates from other institutions were clustered and sequenced so that they could enter training at the same time as the applicants from University X and USAFA. This experiment was conducted for three years. Lt Gen Hopper’s recollection was that during that time only one candidate was lost and that was due to a disciplinary reason.
I asked Lt Gen Hopper if the successful graduation rate was because black IPs looked the other way at discrepancies to help their minority brethren succeed he said no. He said that in fact the black IPs were not matched with the black pilot candidates. He said that the reason the students were successful was that the black IPs served as role models, “faces that look like mine,” and demonstrated to black pilot candidates that it could be done. He said that for minority pilots the black IPs were “somebody you think you can approach to ask a question” and for non-minority IPs “to turn to with their questions on how best to get through to minority students.” He also stated that having black IPs in the “flight meetings,” where they discussed how to help the students that were doing poorly, was part of the success. Lt Gen Hopper called the experiment a “built in peer group” to progress through pilot training….
The premise of multicultural education is this: “to reform the school and other educational institutions so that students from diverse racial, ethnic, and social-class groups will…experience educational success and mobility” (Banks 1993). Multicultural education has content integration, knowledge construction, prejudice reduction, equity and school culture aspects.
Content integration “deals with the extent to which teachers use examples, data, and information from a variety of cultures and groups to illustrate key concepts, principles, generalizations, and theories in their subject area or discipline.
Knowledge construction deals with “how implicit cultural assumptions, frames of reference, perspectives, and biases within a discipline influence the ways that knowledge is constructed within it (Berger & Luckman, 1996; Gould 1981; Harding, 1991; Kuhn 1970).”
Equity exists “when teachers use techniques and methods that facilitate the academic achievement of students from diverse racial, ethnic and social-class groups.”
Finally the empowering school culture consists of “restructuring the culture and organization of the school” based on an examination of “grouping practices (Braddock, 1990; Oakes, 1985), labeling practices (Mercer, 1989), the social climate of the school, and staff expectations for student achievement (Brookover, Beady, Flood, Schweitzer, & Wisenbaker, 1979).
The studies referenced briefly above are not new to the field of education and training, they are in fact many decades old. However, the Air Force does not seem to have taken these types findings into consideration as they have developed their flying training and education. I believe it is impossible to say that “differences in cultural frames of reference and interpersonal functioning, implicit cultural assumptions, or even the differences between the social culture found in SUPT and minority culture are not key contributing factors for the higher washout rates for minorities in SUPT. This seems to be borne out in the success of the Tuskegee Airmen experiment, where the near homogeneous ethnic ecosystem likely dramatically reduced all of these factors. We will see later in this book that when the Air Force merely simply clustered a small group of black pilots together in SUPT, as part of an experiment, that the success of the trainees skyrocketed…
“We showed up eager to start a flying career in Air Force. We had heard about the rigors of the pilot training and the high attrition rate for black students; 56% to be exact in1972. Back then we were still called black or Afro-Americans, and of course all of had Afro’s. Three came from Historically Black Universities and three came from predominantly white schools. Ray Thomas and Sam Love came out of the AFROTC program at Tuskegee Institute and Sam Robinson was an Officer Training School graduate from North Carolina A&T. Gerald Lewis and Charles Stallworth came out of the Air Force Academy. I was from the AFROTC program at the University of Southern California.
None of us expected to see five other black guys in the class. Charles and Gerald knew each other from the Academy and had some indication that they would be in the same pilot training. The same was probably true for the two Tuskegee grads. Sam Robinson didn’t know anyone. The only person I knew was Gerald who I had met briefly when we attended airborne jump school as cadets at Fort Benning in 1972. Gerald and I are both from Chicago.” (Lt Col Larry “Jet” Jackson)
This “test case” illustrates how elements of the Tuskegee Airmen experiment could be replicated today. These six men appear to have created their own mini-culture within the culture of their UPT class at Vance AFB, OK. This test case shows that when some of the cultural impacts (such as tokenism, lack of same race peers, lack of same race role models) are mitigated that the success could be astonishing. All six black pilots in UPT class 75-03 graduated, a 100% graduation rate at a time when black pilots were washing out at a rate of 56%. The pilots came from all the commissioning sources: USAFA, ROTC-Historically Black College, ROTC-large mainstream university and OTS. In the face of such success, why didn’t the Air Force continue to produce minority pilots this way? My answer? I don’t believe the Air Force was ready for an influx of black pilots. It sounds like a harsh answer, but I will share why I came to that conclusion later when I discuss the “Creech system” and how minority pilots fared under it in the 1970s.
New Material: “The Air Force’s Black Pilot Training Experience”
Several student pilots from the Air Force Academy class of 1989 all decided to choose Vance AFB base as their choice for Specialized Undergraduate Pilot Training (SUPT). One of the biggest reasons for this was that General “Fig” Newton was the Wing Commander at Vance. General Newton was the Air Force’s first black Thunderbird pilot. General Newton also went on to become the Air Force’s first and as of this date only, black Fighter Wing Commander in Air Force history.
The black USAFA graduates felt that they would have a better chance for success with a black Wing Commander. Grasping the underpinnings of their choice is a critical cultural point that my non-minority readers must not miss. It is still very much true in black culture that black people feel they will be treated better by black leaders. Anyone who attempts to gloss over this cultural difference risks missing the chance of coming to a greater understanding of black culture and how black people, in general, view leadership demographics.
While the sentiment that having a black leader is essential to success has diminished among black people over time, it was still such an important staple of black culture in 1989 that a group of black USAFA students used it as the determining factor in their selection of a SUPT base. Someone even coined the phrase “have a chance at Vance.” This was not the 1960s or 1970s, this was in early 1990.
In this self-clustering effort by the USAFA Class of 1989, many of the factors that made the Tuskegee Airmen successful were present. The Tuskegee Airmen had the most legendary black senior leader of their generation in then Colonel, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. In 1990, at Vance AFB, the black students had one of the most successful black leaders of their generation in General Newton.
By clustering themselves together, though in significantly smaller numbers than Tuskegee, the black students at Vance achieved enough mass to develop the same type of supportive ecosystem that the Tuskegee Airmen had as a result of segregation and that the Air Force achieved by experiment in the 1970s.
Not only did the 1989 USAFA students achieve the same type of supportive culture by self-clustering at Vance; they also achieved the same type of success. Not only did they not lose a USAFA classmate in training, but their presence also positively influenced the washout rate of the other black pilots that were in training at the time (See chart below).
We can look at nature, at something simple, like plants, and easily recognize that different plants need different things to grow. Some plants need more sunlight. Some need more water. Some need a certain soil type to thrive. With black student pilots, it is obvious to me that they need just enough students and role models to achieve a mini-ecosystem, to creative enough support in a majority culture that is not ideally suited, in its naturally occurring construct, for them to thrive.
I can hear the voices of those non-minorities that would say why do we have to do something different for black pilots? I wish I could point to the case of a white student pilot at a pilot training base that perhaps was located in the inner city like Chicago or Brooklyn, where 95% of the students were black, and 98% of the instructors were black and 100% of the senior leaders were black and all the tangible, discernible elements of the culture were heavily influenced by black culture. Perhaps then and only then, could some of these voices begin to see the importance of what I am talking about.
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