Brad Lang wouldn’t be where he is today — in the captain’s seat of Delta Air Lines 757s and 767s — if it wasn’t for men like his father.
Lang’s father, Donald Lang, was a Tuskegee Airman — one of a group of World War II fliers and their support crew who became the United State’s first African-American military aviators.
“Without the Tuskegee Airmen being successful in the military, you wouldn’t have had, 40 years later, blacks getting into aviation,” Lang said.
The Tuskegee Airmen became well known for their skills — bomber crews requested their protection — as they flew and fought for the U.S.
But they were also fighting for something back home: equal treatment.
“They were early civil rights advocates, even if people see them as soldiers,” Lang said. “They were doing the same kind of work that a Rosa Parks would be doing.”
Delta jets aren’t the only planes Lang flies. On Saturday, he’ll be flying a World War II-era P-51C Mustang fighter in the Freedom Fair air show over the Ruston Way waterfront. It’s a restored version of the signature aircraft of the Tuskegee Airmen.
“I do a series of maneuvers that were used in World World II. It gives people an idea of the speed and maneuverability of the Mustang, which was considered to be the best all-around fighter from World War II,” he said.
On Sunday, he and the plane will be at Gig Harbor Wings and Wheels at the Tacoma Narrows Airport.
The plane belongs to the Commemorative Air Force’s Red Tail Squadron. The group also will have its “Rise Above” traveling exhibit there.
The 53-foot long mobile theater features the original short film “Rise Above.” The theater’s 160-degree panoramic screen creates the sensation of being in the cockpit of an airborne P-51C Mustang. Both the plane and exhibit are meant to educate and inspire visitors with the history and legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen.
“For a young (African-American) person who wanted to fly, Tuskegee was the only apparent way to fly for the military and fight for the country that you are a part of. And just like their white counterparts, most of the young guys back then wanted to do their part,” Lang said.
Their story was told in another film, 2012’s “Red Tails” starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Terrence Howard.
Lang, 55, volunteers with the CAF, a flying museum of 160 primarily World War II-era aircraft assigned to 70 themed units across the country. The Dallas-based CAF Red Tail Squadron is one of those units.
The Tuskegee Airmen were trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama during the war. They were first deployed in 1944 to Italy. Though some in the white-controlled military supported them, they also faced critics who assumed they would fail.
“You had a group of guys and gals down there who were trying to have the opportunity to rise or fall based on their ability and not on their skin color,” Lang said.
The airmen did succeed, so much so that bomber pilots began to realize that when the fighters with the distinctive red-painted tails showed up to escort them, fewer planes were lost to enemy attack.
“The bombers pilots didn’t realize they were black until they tried to track them down and thank them,” Lang said. But while the white pilots were grateful for the protection, they protested having to share quarters with them at air bases. In a later incident that became known as the Freeman Field Mutiny, members of the 477th Bombardment Group were arrested after they tried to integrate an all-white officers’ club in Indiana.
Today, attitudes have reversed, Lang said.
“We’ve seen gratitude out on the road from many bomber pilots who have come up to thank some of the fellows in the group, because without them they wouldn’t have had sons and daughters and grandsons and granddaughters,” Lang said.
Lang’s father entered the war near its end and never made it overseas. He went on to be a master sergeant in the Army Air Corps and serve directly under the Tuskegee commander, Noel Parrish.
“His experience at Tuskegee was a paramount experience for him in terms of directing his life after the military,” Lang said of his father, who died in 2007 at age 82.
“He would always relate to the discipline and the moral integrity that was a part of the esprit de corps that was at Tuskegee,” he said.
“At Tuskegee, he was motivated to see other people like himself motivated to aviate and also fight for the country. They all had that common core experience.”
Lang hopes exhibit visitors and airshow spectators will get something more than just a spectacular air show or film.
“No matter what the circumstances that you are up against, it is possible to rise against adversity, just like the airmen did, and succeed in life,” he said.