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Empowered Aviation Pioneers Leave an Inspiring Legacy for Modern Airmen

  • Published
  • By Macy Harris
  • Air Combat Command Public Affairs

On Dec. 17, the First Flight Society hosted a celebration recognizing the 119th anniversary of the first powered and controlled flight, the 75th anniversary of the U.S. Air Force and the induction of Gen. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. into the Paul E. Garber First Flight Shrine. The event took place at the Wright Brothers’ National Memorial, N.C.

Kicking off at 9 a.m., the ceremony included remarks from the National Park Service, First Flight Society, Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site and Gen. Davis Jr.’s great nephew Doug Melville. Gen. Mark D. Kelly, commander of Air Combat Command, delivered the keynote speech about the 75th Anniversary of the Air Force, the impact the Wright Brothers had on modern aviation and the legacy Gen. Davis left for modern Airmen.

“We are the most feared and revered Air Force in the world because of those who have gone before us, particularly those who weren’t afraid to break barriers, weren’t afraid to think differently, and weren’t afraid to  be different,” said Kelly. “The Wright Brothers and Gen. Davis clearly were not afraid to break barriers.”

The theme of the Air Force’ 75th Anniversary is, “Innovate, Accelerate and Thrive – The Air Force at 75.” Through this theme, the Air Force calls on Airmen to innovate in how they train and employ their squadrons, develop capabilities and continue to move toward a more effective Air Force. The Air Force accelerates through rapid changes in technology and demands placed on air superiority; global strike; rapid global mobility; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance; and command and control.

Ultimately, the service thrives because of empowered Airmen unafraid to forge their own path.

Gen. Davis, Jr., an aviation pioneer, was the first Black man to graduate from West Point since 1889, a member of the first aviation cadet training class at Tuskegee Army Airfield, and the first Black pilot to solo a U.S. Army aircraft. With Gen. Davis Jr. as commander of the Tuskegee Airmen, the “Red Tails” compiled an outstanding combat record against the Luftwaffe in World War II. At the start of World War II, Gen. Davis, Jr. and his father Brig. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis, were the only two Black officers in the military who weren’t chaplains and later they became the first two Black generals.

On Dec. 9, 1998, Gen. Davis Jr. became the first Black officer to receive a fourth star in retirement. Leaders of firsts, Gen. Davis Jr. and his father carefully and strategically navigated a difficult time in American history.

“Ben and his dad lived as if they were invisible,” explained Melville, as he shared the story of the father and son who referred to themselves as “invisible generals.” “Ben wanted to live a long life and die as an old man. He felt the best way to do that was not to cause problems but to diffuse the system and act quietly, operating as if he were invisible so he could help make the change that we all wanted to see.”

After retirement from the Air Force, Gen. Davis Jr. led efforts to create the 55 mph speed limit to save lives and gas, the U.S. Marshal Service, Commercial Airport Security and the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds. He dedicated his life to aviation.

“No Airman embodies the idea of thriving in the warrior spirit of our Air Force with a past or present more so than our honoree today, Gen. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.,” said Kelly. “I think Gen. Davis is the epitome of what we call today ‘empowered Airman,’ and in turn, he empowered other Airmen to give us the competitive edge we still enjoy over our adversaries.”

Air Combat Command seeks to organize, train and equip the best and brightest Airmen, necessary to fly, fight and win. Leaders like the Wright Brothers and Gen. Davis Jr. set the example for future Airmen from all backgrounds to promote positive change, break barriers and pave their own way in history.

Every year, the First Flight Society holds a celebration on Dec. 17 to recognize the Wright Brothers’ achievements in aviation. This year’s attendees included the great-great nephew of Wilbur and Orville Wright, Gen. Davis Jr.’s family members, members and families of Tuskegee Airmen and First Flight Society members.

Annually since 1966, a high-level panel appointed by the First Flight Society selects and inducts a new member into the First Flight Shrine, and unveils their portrait in the portrait gallery. This year, the society unveiled Gen. Davis Jr.’s portrait to be displayed until next year’s celebration.

Other aviation pioneers featured in the gallery include Wilbur and Orville Wright, William Edward Boeing, Wiley H. Post, Neil Armstrong, Edwin Aldrin, Michael Collins, President George H. Walker Bush and Rear Adm. Alan B. Shepard, Jr., among others.