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History 72 Years in the making: 1949 First Aerial Gunnery Competition

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Carlin Leslie
  • Air Combat Command Public Affairs

Seventy-two years ago, and one year after racial integration of the Armed Forces, four pilots took to the skies in P-47 Thunderbolts to compete in a first of its kind Air Force competition. Even though their aerial adversary, the much newer P-51 Mustang, was formidable, these four men had already grappled with a much more formidable adversary on the ground by the name of Jim Crow.  

As part of the AARP “Wish of a Lifetime” program, Gen. Mark Kelly, commander of Air Combat Command, reaffirmed the accomplishments of the 332nd Fighter Group during a presentation in honor of Retired Lt. Col. James Harvey, Tuskegee Airman and 1949 First Gunnery Competition winning team member. The ceremony took place during the Air, Space and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Maryland, Sept. 21, 2021. 

“We’re here to make right the record with the plaque that covers a short competition held 72 years ago,” Kelly said. “The reason this crowd is here is to honor a lifetime of service, character and a journey of purpose. It is my distinct honor to reaffirm the accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen from the 332nd Fighter Group, winning the 1949 USAF First Aerial Gunnery Competition at Las Vegas Air Force Base, Nevada.”

In 1949, the First Aerial Gunnery Competition was held at Nellis Air Base, Nevada—then Las Vegas Air Force Base—bringing together Air Force fighter groups from across the country to compete in a Top Gun-style competition. However, for 44 years, the winners were marked unknown in the record books, and for 55 years the trophy was missing. 

As time progressed, a pilot from the original team, Retired Col. Harry Stewart came forward in 1993 to set the record straight. The team that won the 1949 competition was none other than the 332nd Fighter Group, Tuskegee Airmen. 

The four-Airman team consisted of The Tuskegee Airmen, Capt. Alva Temple, Lt. James Harvey, and Lt. Harry Stewart with Lt. Halbert Alexander as the alternate pilot.  

Now fast forwarding 72 years, the team has had their accomplishment reaffirmed into the history books, by Air Force senior leaders.

Harvey’s “wish” is that his team becomes widely recognized for winning this competition. The intent of this “wish” is to bring proper honor and greater acknowledgement to what then Lt. Harvey and his fellow Tuskegee Airmen accomplished.

“It was an honor to reaffirm the accomplishments of our entire 332nd Fighter Group team," Harvey said. “I have dedicated my life to ensure my wingmen get the recognition they deserve. Mission Accomplished.”