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Black History Month | First African American pilot to fly with Thunderbirds: Lloyd “Fig” Newtwon

Lloyd Newton was the first African American pilot to fly with the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds demonstration team.

He was born on Dec. 24, 1942, in Ridgeland, S.C., to tenant farmers. His parents worked the land with Newton right alongside them, which taught him to appreciate the value of hard labor.

Team photograph of the USAF Thunderbirds, with then Capt. Lloyd “Fig” Newton second from left. (Air Force photograph)

Newton attended segregated schools in South Carolina and ultimately graduated from Jasper High School. After high school, Newton enrolled in the Reserve Officer Training Corps at Tennessee State University in Nashville. He was named a Distinguished Graduate of the program, receiving his Bachelorís degree in Aviation Education and a commission as an officer in the U.S. Air Force.

He later completed pilot training at Williams Air Force Base, Ariz., in 1967, and attended F-4D qualification training at George Air Force Base, Calif. Flying the F-4D Phantom II, he flew 269 combat missions during the Vietnam War, including 79 missions over North Vietnam.

From the beginning of his career in the Air Force, Newton wanted to become a member of the elite flying demonstration team, the Thunderbirds. Ten years after entering the Air Force, he achieved his goal, becoming the first African American pilot to join that elite team.

As a Thunderbird, he held several positions, such as narrator, slot pilot and right wingman. He served with the Thunderbirds from 1975 to 1978.

Capt. Lloyd “Fig” Newton of with the USAF Thunderbirds. (Air Force photograph)

From 1978 to 1982, he was assigned as an Air Force congressional liaison officer with the U.S. House of Representatives, Washington, D.C. From 1993 to 1995, he was director of operations, J-3, of the United States Special Operations Command.

Newton is one of 11 four-star generals in the United States Air Force. From 1997 to 2000, he was commander of Air Education and Training Command at the Randolph Air Force Base in Texas, where he recruited, trained, and educated all Air Force personnel. He has received a number of awards and accolades, such as the Defense Distinguished Service Medal, Air Force Distinguished Service Medal, Legion of Merit, Distinguished Flying Cross, and the Meritorious Service Medal.

Newton retired from the Air Force in 2000.

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