February is Black History Month, and you can see a live slice of that history by visiting Fantasy of Flight in Polk County on February 7, 8, and 9. That's when "They Dared to Fly: Tuskegee Airmen" brings real-life legends out to tell their stories firsthand in a three-day symposium.
The Tuskegee airmen were brave both in the war theater abroad as they battled the enemy and back at home, where they were faced with racism. At the event, you'll get the chance to meet four of these heroes in person:
George E. Hardy, who entered military service in July 1943, and graduated as a pilot with the Tuskegee Airmen in September 1944. He went February 1945 and flew 21 combat missions over Germany. His military career continued with service in Korea and Vietnam, and he retired in November 1971 with the rank of Lt. Colonel. His decorations include the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal with eleven (11) Oak Leaf Clusters, and the Commendation Medal with one Oak Leaf Cluster.
Leo R. Gray, who completed the College Training Detachment Program at Tuskegee Institute and entered aviation cadet training to become a pilot. He graduated from the Tuskegee Army Air Field Flying School as a 2nd Lieutenant and was stationed in Italy as a fighter pilot with the 100th Fighter Squadron, 332nd Fighter Group. He flew 15 combat missions over Europe before separating from active duty in 1946. During his 41 years of military service, Lt. Col. Gray was awarded the Air Medal with one Oak Leaf Cluster, a Presidential Unit Citation, and the Mediterranean Theatre of Operation ribbon with three Battle Stars.
Daniel Keel, who was a junior studying aeronautical engineering at Northeastern University when he was drafted in 1943. Although he earned his wings as a pilot and navigator in the Tuskegee program, the war ended before Keel's 477th Bombardment Group (Medium) saw action. He left the military in 1946 and got his commercial pilot’s license, although African-Americans would not be allowed to pilot a major commercial airline for nearly two more decades. He opted to start an electrical contracting firm from which he is now retired.
Charles McGee, who was studying engineering at the University of Illinois when he enlisted in the U.S. Army, became a part of the Tuskegee Airmen and earned his wings in June 1943. He flew 137 combat missions before returning to the United States in Dec. 1944 as a Captain. He served as a pilot in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, completing more than 270 missions. In a 30-year active service career, he achieved the highest three-war fighter mission total (409) of any Air Force aviator. He retired as a Colonel in Jan. 1973 with many awards, including Distinguished Flying Cross with two Oak Leaf Clusters, Legion of Merit with one Oak Leaf Cluster, Bronze Star, and numerous other awards. In 2011, he was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio. He also served as a consultant to last year's George Lucas film, "Red Tails."
The symposium is included with regular admission. If you can't make it during the event, Fantasy of Flight has a permanent exhibit honoring the Tuskegee airmen, as well as other exhibits, aircraft, and tours that let you see the restoration process firsthand. You can also challenge the Wing Walk Air Ropes course and ride the zip line for an additional charge.
The symposium runs from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. each day. It's part of the Fantasy of Flight "Legends & Legacies" series. For more information, visit http://www.fantasyofflight.com/livinghistory/. Fantasy of Flight is easily accessible from I-4, about 20 minutes west of Walt Disney World.