Tom Ross: Pilots defied stereotypes

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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.

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. That's the record for American pilots.

Finley saw a steady stream of fresh faces come through flight school. Some promising young pilots were washed out simply because the demand was soft at that moment in time. Other pilots who probably should not have earned their military wings were successful.

McGee scored his first aerial victory over a German Fock Wulf FW-190 while escorting bombers on thier 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."

In 1940, Finley said she was the token girl among every 10 students at Winona State Teachers College chosen for civilian pilot training.

"I made sure I was that one girl," she said with a telling glance.

McGee was the son of a pastor who also 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 does not recall that he dreamed of flying as a youngster, but 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. It was a struggle to convince the military establishment that women could effectively fly fighters and bombers.

For McGee, it was about race.

"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."

Finley recalls a time when four promising young black women applied to become WASPs or members of the Women's Air Force Service Program. Then director of the WASPs, Jacqueline Cochran gave each of the women separate interviews but rejected their applications.

"She told them, 'I'm having a hard enough time getting them to let women fly period, I can't fight both battles at once.'"

Hearing that anecdote reminded McGee of one of the women pilots he admires most.

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.

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