November 25, 2013
By Benét J. Wilson
On Nov. 11, a monument to honor a subset of the Tuskegee Airmen, the Red Tails pilots, was unveiled during a ceremony at the Orlando Flight Center. The monument was the brainchild of Mike McKenzie, a pilot and president of Vision of Flight, dedicated to introducing economically disadvantaged students to the world of flight.
McKenzie said he came up with the idea for the monument about three years ago during a chance meeting with some of the Red Tails pilots. “I had the privilege of meeting some of them at a luncheon at the Fantasy of Flight, which does yearly symposiums with veterans of past wars and the aircraft associated with them,” he said. The luncheon featured the Red Tails pilots.
“They brought me up to speed on some of their history. After speaking further, I learned they were getting ready to host their first-ever reunion, and I thought [it] would be a great opportunity to get know them better,” said McKenzie. “During that time, I got their stories. There were 932 pilots who graduated from the Tuskegee program. Out of those who graduated, 355 were considered elite and were sent to various overseas bases.”
These men became the ones who escorted the bombers during World War II and were known as the Red Tails, said McKenzie. “They were specifically requested by bomber pilots to be escorts, despite having to deal with segregation and racism,” he said. “But history changed them into one group of airmen. Not all the Tuskegee Airmen saw combat. The Red Tails stand above in that category.”
McKenzie spoke with Red Tails pilot Lt. Col. Leo Gray, and asked how he could help. “The colonel said 'You can help get me a monument,’” he recalled. “I thought that was bold, but Gray said that he had been trying to get a Red Tail monument, and I agreed it should be done.”
Syd Levy, president of Orlando-based United Trophy Manufacturing Inc., originally pledged to cover 50 percent of the monument’s cost, said McKenzie. “After seeing my intent and learning the history of the Red Tails, he said he would cover the cost of the whole thing. That was the turning point,” he said. “We’re down to only 33 Red Tail [pilots]. It usually takes three years for approval of monuments in Orlando, but we got it done in three months.”
McKenzie consulted with Gray on the design of the monument. “I was looking for something to tell a story or encourage people to ask what it represented. I was also looking for something that had relevance,” he said. “I spoke with Col. Gray about any particular incidents during his missions, and he told me about a mission where five aircraft were lost in one mission, which was high for the Red Tails.”
Two were shot down, but the pilots survived; two aircraft went missing and the pilots were never found; and one aircraft was destroyed, said McKenzie. “So we did the missing man formation with four P-51s as a tribute.”
The monument cost $60,000, said McKenzie. “It stands 12 feet tall, and sits on a two-and-a-half foot base. The pedestal is made of marble and the aircraft are made of bronze,” he said. The monument is located in front of the Orlando Science Center.
Six of the Red Tails pilots were at the dedication and other Tuskegee Airmen attended as well, said McKenzie. “That’s the part that meant the most to me, that this day actually happened in their lifetime. They never thought they would get that recognition,” he said. “They were moved. And it was amazing to see the cameras and people who came out to pay tribute. We had a P-51 that flew overhead during the day. It was a magnificent day for them and I felt they finally got their tribute.”
AOPA eNewsletter and Social Media Editor Benét J. Wilson joined AOPA in 2011. She is working on her private pilot certificate.
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