Last night at the Wings Over the Rockies Spreading Wings Gala, myself, along with over 700 guests, sat in the presence of greatness. The Tuskegee Airmen were honored for their incredibly bold and inspirational contributions to the culture of aviation and to our country. I want you to know that last night was about so much more than simply meeting aviation heroes… it was about celebrating the deep longing to soar that resides inside all of us.
Saturday evening was a sight to behold… the grand setting of the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space museum is nothing short of spectacular on a daily basis, but when combined with an evening setting, patriotic lighting, impeccably dressed guests, uniform-clad military service men and women, beautifully set dining tables, music, and dozens of aircraft on display, it truly takes your breath away. The moment you walk through the doors of the newly renovated museum entrance, you know you are about to witness something extraordinary.
Guests were greeted at the new Gateway to Flight entrance and escorted the second-story mezzanine where they were encouraged to learn about the Tuskegee Airmen. They also viewed artwork made by Colorado K-12 students who designed with the theme of “Images of Valor”. Eighth grader Alia Pagan from Aurora’s Columbia Middle School was the grand prize winner for her work entitled, “Inspiration in the Flames”. From that point, guests walked downstairs to the silent auction and VIP reception.
Upbeat and elegant, the room was buzzing with an air of historic appreciation. Tuskegee Airmen mingled with guests, donning red blazers and demure smiles. These are men in their eighties and nineties, they are men who have seen changes in the world that you and I cannot even fathom.
At 6:45, guests hearts got pumping with the roaring sound of a P-51 engine start-up that filled the massive hangar space. The rich sound was amplified by the walls of the over 160,000 square foot hangar and the steel surfaces of fighter jets that lined the walls of this space. No one missed this sound because as pilots, cranking engines are sounds that tell us things are about to get exciting. This was my first cue as master of ceremonies to tell guests we were about to get started. Three more flybys by Mustang engines and we were ready to go.
When I say this event was well attended, that is an understatement. We were joined by Governor John Hickenlooper, Mayor Michael Hancock, CEO of Ball Aerospace Dave Taylor, the producer of the movie “Red Tails” Charles Johnson, and many, many more. Wings CEO Greg Anderson made the incredible announcement of the Wingspan Capitol Campaign for the Centennial Airport “Exploration of Flight” location. This location will be dedicated to contemporary and leading edge flight operations, eventually housing an aerospace charter school! This building will reside next to runway 10/28 at KAPA… close enough to view aircraft taking off and landing from the observation deck. Greg capped his speech with the incredible announcement that a three million dollar donation has been made by Tony and Delisa Mayer! This great news was met by a standing ovation.
We held an active and exciting live auction, enjoyed a personal video tribute from President Obama, a video from pilot John Travolta, another from NASA Administrator Bolden and also the daughter of a Tuskegee Airmen, news anchor Robin Roberts.
Honorary Chair, Mayor Michael Hancock then took to the stage and directed our attention to the back of the room… nine young Tuskegee re-enactors sauntered through the crowd, wearing authentic flight suits, leather jackets, and helmets, and let me tell you… it was as if the actual Tuskegee airmen had gone back in time, back to their glory days, back to the days when they were altering the course of history! These young men are all pilots or student pilots and are all representatives of the Colorado Chapter’s Mile High Program and the Shades of Blue organization, both of whom conduct programs in partnership with Wings Over the Rockies. Also acknowledged were two grandchildren of the airmen who study and train at the Air Force Academy, Cadet Second Class Jeff Baptist and Cadet Fourth Class Kelsey McGee.
At this point in the evening, it was time to honor the Tuskegee Airmen. This impressive cast included:
Aviation Cadet Randy Edwards, LtCol James Harvey III, Capt Samuel Hunter, Jr., 2nd Lt Franklin Macon, Corporal Henry Moore, LtCol John Mosley Jr., Col Buck Newsum, LtCol Marion Rodgers and Col Charles McGee.
Medals were awarded to each of the airmen by Greg Anderson, Mayor Hancock and Governor Hickenlooper. LtCol Mcgee was then awarded the beautiful bronze Spreading Wings trophy. Mayor Hancock approached the podium and asked if any of the men had anything to say about seeing the young men dressed in their uniforms, symbolizing their hero’s journey… Col Charles McGee said only two words but they hit home with everyone in the room.
He replied, “Education, dedication”
At this moment, the feel of the evening began to shift from appreciation and applause to contemplation of history, change and a call to action. The air in the room was suddenly electric.
Col Buck Newsum asked if he could say a few words to the crowd. This came as a surprise as he was not expected to speak but of course, we all wanted to hear what he had to say. Col Newsum, slowly stood up and used his cane as he approached the podium. The crowd was so silent, you could have heard a pin drop.
Col Newsum told a story of the time he declared that he wanted to fly and was met with intense opposition. He was told that there were no positions for African-American pilots and that it simply was not an option. His reply was that this was going to be a problem… he simply said, “I gotta fly”. His words left his mouth slowly, with intention, and a crowd of over 700 were hanging on the wisdom that was being gifted from Col. Newsum’s memory into the microphone for all to appreciate and learn from. Knowledge like this does not come often and it is even more rare to find it in such an incredibly compelling package.
I have been wracking my brain trying to find the words that even get close to the emotion, passion, persistence and power behind his statement. It is tough to convey what we all felt in that hangar last night, but I will simply say that his words hit home with everyone at the Spreading Wings Gala. I found myself in tears, watching this man, who is close to 100 years old, speak of the importance of standing up for what you believe, never taking no for an answer and living your passion.
I can only speak for myself at this point, but I would be surprised if the consensus were not similar amongst the crowd. When I watched Col Newsum declare that he “had to fly”, we all looked at this man with love and appreciation. He absolutely deserved to fly, he absolutely deserved his chance to change the world, and he absolutely deserved to have all his dreams come true, just as we all do.
The Tuskegee Airmen flew under what has been called the “Tuskegee Experiment”. The word “experiment” is a tricky one… it can feel temporary, possible, and it almost always implies a 50/50 chance. The word experiment comes from the Latin phrase “experior” and it means to try, test, experience, prove.
These Tuskegee Airmen took that 50/50 chance and tried their hardest, tested their courage, skill and knowledge, experienced danger, death, and historic change, and they proved to the world that they were up to the task, motivating and inspiring generations of pilots and our nation as a whole.
Here is to your personal experiments in life… may we always try our hardest, be tested to our limits, experience extraordinary things, and prove to ourselves that we are up to any challenge, regardless the ones who tell us we can’t.