Col. Charles E. McGee, who flew a P–51 Mustang as a member of the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, celebrated his 100th birthday December 6 by climbing into the left seat of a Cirrus Vision Jet.
But McGee (who technically turns 100 on December 7) wasn’t just along for the ride.
“The landing was like butter,” said AOPA Associate Editor David Tulis, who rode in the back of the Cirrus jet to take photos of the flight to Dover, Delaware. “You barely knew it happened.” McGee flew both legs—to Delaware, where he was greeted by more than 100 U.S. Air Force personnel at Dover Air Force Base, and then back to Frederick. The birthday event was organized by Vince Mickens of Private Air Media Group, who also served as master of ceremonies.
Alighting from the jet, McGee said the flight was beautiful and smooth. Asked how the Vision Jet compares to the Mustang, McGee said, “You don’t make those kinds of comparisons,” and noted that the Vision Jet is at the front of technological advancement.
In a videotaped message at McGee's birthday celebration, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson called McGee “a national treasure and an American icon.”
“Because you prevailed, we in the aviation community have the benefit of your wisdom,” Dickson said.
Pete Bunce, president and CEO of the General Aviation Manufacturers Association, invited McGee to be part of the seventy-fifth commemoration of World War II, to be held in May 2020. “We are letting the country know the dedication of your generation,” Bunce said, adding that McGee is invited to fly in the airplane of his choice in the Arsenal of Democracy flyover of Washington, D.C.
Joshua Gibson, a sixth-grade student from Rockville, Maryland, said he aspires to be an aerospace engineer, and that this might not have been possible without McGee’s trailblazing path as a black aviator. “He is a real-life hero who can make us proud of who we are,” Gibson said.
McGee received proclamations from Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, among other tributes.
McGee became an Army Air Corps aviation cadet in 1942, arriving at Tuskegee Army Airfield in November of that year. He earned his wings and commission as a second lieutenant in 1943, and eventually was stationed in Italy, where he performed harbor and coastal patrols, strafed targets on the ground, protected bombers in the air, and performed fighter sweeps against German targets. In addition to the P–51 Mustang, McGee also flew the Bell P–39Q Airacobra and the Republic P–47D Thunderbolt. He completed 138 combat missions.
McGee returned to the United States in 1944, where he became an instructor pilot for the North American B–25 Mitchell for the 477th Bombardment Group, a squadron of black bomber pilots, navigators, and bombardiers who were being prepared for war but did not deploy before the end of the conflict, according to the Redtail.org website.
McGee was on active duty with the U.S. Air Force until 1973. He flew combat missions in the Korean and Vietnam wars, and logged more than 6,000 flight hours. Since retirement, he has worked in real estate and airport management, and he remains active with volunteer service. He is featured in the Red Tails RISE ABOVE traveling exhibit, a mobile movie theater that tours the nation to educate and inspire people with the history and lessons of the Tuskegee Airmen. In the presentation, McGee can be seen encouraging young people to follow the four P’s: perceive your talents; prepare by getting a good education; perform—let excellence be a goal in everything; and persevere—don’t let circumstances be an excuse for not achieving.