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Thunderbird pilot perseveres

February 20, 2018

U.S. Central Command recognizes the service and sacrifices of African Americans during times of war, from the American Revolution to present day conflicts.

African Americans have fought in every major military conflict as exemplary Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and Airmen. They served in notable units such as the Buffalo Soldiers, Harlem Hellfighters, Tuskegee Airmen, and Montford Point Marines.

“The contributions of African Americans are deeply embedded in the history of the United States and continue to be reflected in the core of our Nation’s identity.” (Department of Defense National African American History Month observance memo, 2018)

Recently, retired U.S. Air Force Gen. Lloyd W. ‘Fig’ Newton was a guest speaker at a National African American History Month event at USCENTCOM headquarters.

Newton spoke of his own journey to becoming a fighter pilot. He explained how a friend influenced him to switch his major from mechanical engineering to aviation while attending Tennessee State University.

Newton’s love of flying translated into a career as a U.S. Air Force command pilot. “My whole world changed,” said Newton. “I started doing that kind of thing that I really fell in love with.” After graduation Newton was commissioned as an officer and attended flight school earning his pilot wings.

Newton went on to fly more than 250 missions in F-4 Phantoms during the Vietnam War. Throughout the war, he maintained an aspiration to become a member of the U.S. Air Force Aerial Demonstration Squadron, the Thunderbirds. Newton recalled first seeing them at an air show in 1964 during his sophomore year of college.

“These guys were doing things with airplanes that were unimaginable in my mind,“ said Newton. “They landed, taxied in, all in line. All of the canopies came up at the same time. All of the guys got up out of the cockpit with their beautiful blue uniforms on. I said I want to be just like that.”

In 1974, after three rejected applications, the Thunderbirds called. Newton became the first African American to perform as a pilot with the team. “Just don’t give up,” said Newton. “If you have a dream, stay with it. Chances are, if you do it will come true.”

“The kind of freedoms and the kind of values that we have as Americans, make us who we are, and what we are,” said Newton, in closing. “Let’s not lose that.”