Tuskegee Airman turns dream into reality

Lt. Col. Robert Ashby was a pilot in the Korean War.

Sometimes someone’s life can take a profound and unexpected turn by being in the right place at the right time. Such a thing happened to Robert Ashby, retired lieutenant and Tuskegee Airman. What he was doing at age 17 planted the seeds for a life that would grow into a tree of success.

Ashby was born in Yemassee, South Carolina, in 1925, and at age 5, he and his family moved to Jersey City, New Jersey. In mid-1944, young Ashby not only delivered newspapers, he read them, too.

“I’d never been in an airplane,” he said. “By delivering newspapers, I had the opportunity to read about black fliers, and it stirred my interest. At that time there was little positive news concerning black Americans in mainstream newspapers, but there were black newspapers at the time that covered news about social happenings such as the black pilots, and my interest was born.”

Retired Lt. Col. Bob Ashby became the first black pilot for Frontier Airlines in 1973. (Courtesy photo)

Ashby enlisted shortly afterward rather than waiting to be drafted. He said he volunteered, so he could have the chance of being a flier rather than waiting to be drafted and ending up with a menial job, which at that time were the only jobs available to African Americans.

He became an aviation inductee, which began a long road full of obstacles and unique challenges. However, he said, the more difficult the task, the more determined he became to succeed.

A test was required, which Ashby passed with a good score, but he was told he would have to take the same test again after he arrived at Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi. He passed it again and went to the Tuskegee Institute, Alabama, to start his cadet training.

He said his training followed military procedures. It was standard training, which taught the trainees how to follow orders. He graduated in 1945, but circumstances kept him from going overseas.

“There were four black squadrons in the European theater, which military leaders thought was enough even though a lot of bombers were being lost,” Ashby said. “One bomber had 10 to 12 personnel. The Air Corps took tremendous losses. Our squadrons provided fighter support for the bombers, which helped to decrease losses.”

FROM LEFT: David Toliver, founding member of the Archer-Ragsdale Arizona Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, retired Lt. Col. Asa Herring, retired Lt. Col. Robert Ashby, and retired Tech. Sgt. Rudolf Silas, original Tuskegee Airmen, salute March 24. 2016, during the Laying of the Wreath portion of the 3rd Annual Tuskegee Airmen Commemoration Day on Luke Air Force Base. (Tech. Sgt. Louis Vega Jr.)

However, the cadet program closed in 1946. Ashby received orders to report to Godman Army Airfield, Kentucky, but on his way to the field, he was ordered to go to Japan as part of the American occupation force. His first three assignments were at Nagoya, Yokohama and Taiko, but because of his color, he wasn’t accepted. Finally, he was assigned to a black company at Quartermaster Depot in Tokyo and the worst part of this assignment, as he recalled it, was being taken off flying status.

The winds of change were blowing in the U.S. and Ashby’s life was about to take a turn, which would return him to flying status and lead him to great success as an aviator, both in the military and civilian sectors.

“I was reassigned in 1949 to Lockbourne Air Force Base, Ohio, flying the P-47,” he said. “A year earlier, President Truman enacted Executive Order 9981 integrating the military. He gave the services one year to comply, but the Air Force was the first to comply. The black air force disbanded in 1949. My career blossomed, and I was sent to bases throughout the United States and abroad.”

When the Korean War broke out, Ashby answered his country’s call. He was assigned to the 3rd Bomber Wing, Kunsan Air Base.

What’s more, Ashby’s military career afforded him the opportunity to fly numerous aircraft, including the PT-17, AT-6, B-25, T-6, C-46, B-26, B-47, T-33, P-47, B-45 and B-66.

He was involved in the Cold War and was assigned to bases in England including Royal Air Force Sculthorpe and RAF Molesworth.

“I flew B-45s and B-66s, which were medium-range bombers to retaliate if the Russians started a nuclear war,” he said.

His last assignment was at Pease AFB, New Hampshire, where he spent time on alert.

“I would go on alert three weeks every month,” Ashby said. “General Curtis LeMay was the commander of the Strategic Air Command. The commanders were under the gun. If one did a good job, he would become part of a select group. I was promoted to major and lieutenant colonel while at Pease and retired in 1965.”

Retirement was only a step to Ashby’s next career with United and Frontier Airlines. The prejudice of the day was an obstacle, but he overcame it just as he did in the military.

He was hired in 1965 by United Airlines, but not as a pilot.

“They saw that I was black, so I was hired as a ground flight operations instructor,” he said. “In 1972 United started to get Boeing 747s so I was sent to Seattle for training. We wrote the program for this aircraft. Our team had 15 people.”

Ashby was furloughed from United in 1972 and in 1973 made history by becoming the first black pilot for Frontier Airlines. He started as a second officer and graduated to captain, flying the Convair 580, Boeing 737 and the MD 80. He pointed out that Frontier also hired the first female pilot. Ashby retired from Frontier in 1986.

He said he was the only documented Tuskegee Airman who was hired by a major airline as a pilot, which is a sad commentary, but he said the commercial airlines are doing a great job presently in hiring minorities.

In all, Ashby reflected on the surprising and welcomed changes that took place in his lifetime.

“In my youth, the state of black and white relations would stay the same. My parents taught us to adapt to the conditions of the time. I never realized how much things would change for the better. We are here and capable of doing any job well. The military is one of the best equal
opportunity organizations.”

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