100-year-old Tuskegee airman from Bethesda returns to the sky for his birthday

What makes a 100-year-old giggle? Well, for retired Tuskegee Airman Air Force Colonel Charles E. McGee of Bethesda, Maryland, it’s the memory of flying in enemy territory without a single weapon knowing he could outrun anything else in the sky.

“Our protection was speed and we used it,” McGee said of intelligence gathering missions in Vietnam.

McGee turns 100 on Dec. 7. He earned his Tuskegee Airman pilot’s wings on June 30, 1943. Drafted when he was a sophomore at the University of Illinois, he’s one of nine living Tuskegee pilots who flew combat missions. Over the course of a 30 year military career spanning three wars, McGee flew 409 fighter combat missions, more than any other U.S. serviceman.

Serving in Italy in 1944, McGee held the rank of Captain; in Korea in 1951 he was a Major; in Vietnam in 1968 he was a Lt. Colonel; at Richards-Gebaur Air Force Base in Kansas City, Kansas, McGee served as a Colonel in 1972.

Now in 2019, a rank McGee proudly remembers is that of Boy Scout.

“If everybody lived by the Scout oath and the 12 Scout laws, we would have a different country for sure,” McGee said. “It’s important that we don’t give up hope. If you give up hope on anything, you’re lost.”

Best development in 100 years?

Of all the changes McGee has witnessed, he’s most impressed by “the advancement of technology and where that’s taking us.”

McGee worries some schools aren’t keeping youngsters up to date about technology and its potential. He describes telling middle school kids about planes in the future that may go from New York to Tokyo in 1 1/2 to two hours once the structure of airplane bodies is stronger and fuel challenges are figured out.

“[I said,] ‘Y’all know, we’re planning to go to Mars?’ And they say, ‘Yeah.’ They’ve heard about it,” said McGee. “And I said, ‘Guess who’s gonna make the trip? It’s gonna be one of you sitting here.’ So be prepared, get the education plan and hopefully your talents fit in and you may be one of those that make the trip.”

What does McGee attribute his longevity to?

“Thinking positive and the good Lord’s many blessings,” McGee said.

McGee returns to the sky for his birthday.

As a dedication to the legacy of 15,000 Tuskegee Airmen — which includes pilots, maintenance chiefs and support — McGee will fly as an honorary co-pilot in two state-of-the-art private business jets on Friday and Saturday at the Frederick Municipal Airport. Friday’s flight will be followed by a luncheon to include dignitaries from the U.S. Air Force and Smithsonian Air & Space Museums.

Colonel McGee and his fellow Tuskegee Airmen overcame struggles many of us could never imagine. The Tuskegee Airmen played a significant role in protecting this country’s freedom against the Axis powers, while also fighting their own battle of acceptance from compatriots. I’m honored to celebrate Col. McGee’s 100th birthday and his amazing contributions to this country. May his legacy and the legacy of his fellow airmen live on forever, and may that legacy help to inspire the next generation of pilots, especially young and minority pilots, to never give up on their dreams.”
— Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) President and CEO Mark Baker.

“He’s quite an amazing person, and I think that he deserves the recognition or as much recognition as possible, while he’s alive for all the things that he’s accomplished,” Vincent Mickens said.

Mickens is a private pilot and owns Private Air Media Group, LLC. He’s known McGee since 2012 and volunteers time to coordinate and promote events that honor and celebrate McGee and the Tuskegee Airmen.

“He’s absolutely an amazing, amazing guy all the way around. He’s dedicated, devoted to America and everything we stand for as a country,” Mickens said. “He wants to see the next generation pursue opportunities in aviation.”

Looking to the future.

McGee believes everyone should be involved in mentoring and motivating future generations. His mantra of 4 P’s:

  • Perceive: Dream your dreams. Find out what you like to do that hopefully corresponds with your talents.
  • Prepare: Get a good education. Learn to read, write and speak well. Develop your talents.
  • Perform: Always do your best. Make excellence the goal in everything you do.
  • Persevere: Don’t let the negative circumstances be an excuse for not achieving. Look ahead; stay positive.

And for those interested in getting in the air for a living, Mickens said “this is a great time to get into any aspect of aviation or aerospace.”

Mickens described the Federal Aviation Agency’s STEM Aviation and Space Education (AVSED) program, saying it has, “every opportunity for kids to start getting involved from middle school on up and actually become either a pilot or go into avionics or become an astronaut or whatever they want to do.”

“The opportunities are there. We’re looking for literally tens of thousands of pilots. There’s opportunity for mechanics. Again, every aspect of aviation is wide open right now,” Mickens said.

Anyone who’s interested can get an idea of how magical the experience can be from McGee, who said he was hooked after his first training flight in a PT-17. Now turning 100, he’s flown 37 different types of planes including the 1941 PT-17 Stearman training aircraft and the infamous Redtail P-51 Mustang.

Describing one of his favorite flights, McGee talks about taking off at sunset, climbing to 40,000 feet, seeing the sun set again and then flying around beneath a canopy of stars.

The experience left him inspired: “We human beings are just one small aspect in a mighty grand world.”

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up