Tom Ross: In defiance of stereotypes: Veteran pilots reunite

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Tom Ross

Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.

Find more columns by Tom here.

— Editor's note: This column originally published Sept. 4, 2005, after renowned member of the Tuskegee Airmen Charles McGee and pioneering military flight instructor Ethel Meyer Finley visited the Wild West Air Fest in Steamboat Springs. Meyer Finley died Feb. 4, 2006.

Ethel Meyer Finley and Charles McGee were reunited with an old friend Saturday afternoon at Steamboat Springs Airport. The two veteran pilots were invited to climb into the backseats of a pair of screaming yellow World War II era T-6G trainers.

"My T-6 didn't look that nice," Finley said as she admired the big tail dragger.

Finley flew a variety of military aircraft during World War II and was the only active female instructor of male pilots. McGee, make that Col. Charles McGee, was a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the all-black squadron that battered down the color barrier for military pilots.

During the war years, Finley trained men to become fighter pilots in an earlier version of the two T-6's flown to Steamboat for the air show by Ed Huber of Elbert and Dick Jones of Centennial. And it was in a T-6 that McGee took the first steps to becoming a celebrated fighter pilot who ultimately flew 407 combat missions in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

McGee scored his first aerial victory over a German Fock Wulf FW-190 while escorting bombers on their way to the Czech oil refinery at Pardubice.

The two pilots could have swapped stories all afternoon, but instead we talked about opportunity - equal opportunity for everyone.

"I was a little girl when Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic, and I figured if a farm boy from Minnesota could (fly solo across the ocean) so could a farm girl from Minnesota," Finley said.

McGee was the son of a pastor who did social work. He lost his mother when he was a year old. His family didn't have the money for college, but he studied engineering as a member of the Civilian Conservation Corp and later at the University of Illinois where he was in the Reserve Officer Training Corps. He passed a test for an experimental all-black squadron and his military career took wing.

Both Finley and McGee encountered bias and prejudice in their flying careers.

"They told us, 'You don't have the capacity, you lack the technical ability and the moral fiber'" to be a military pilot, McGee said. "I wanted folks to respect me for my ability and not the happenstance of my birth. If you want respect, you have to give respect."

McGee told Finley about a female pilot he admires.

The pilot's name was Bessie Coleman. She was born in Texas in 1892 and, during World War I, read about the air war in Europe. She wanted to become a military aviator but the fact that she was a black woman meant it was out of the question. Undeterred, she learned to speak French and earned enough money to go to Paris to get her license. In spite of numerous setbacks, she earned her license in 1921, becoming the first black American of either gender to earn a pilot's license.

"Our country is more diverse than it has ever been," McGee said. "What is the strength of our country? It's the ability of people. If you don't get the best out of everybody, who knows what the country has lost?"

Words of wisdom from two pilots who have seen a good deal of history unfold.

-To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205

or e-mail ross@steamboatpilot.com

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