CLEVELAND, Tenn. - People of all ages filled the Cleveland Regional Jetport lobby on Saturday to see Wilbur Mason, a member of the famous all-black 1940s Tuskegee Airmen group.
Mason, who served in stateside supply operations for the unit, discussed his experiences and those of the racially segregated air unit as part of Youth Aviation Adventure, which was organized by Community of One and the Black Pilots Association.
"The way has been paved for you," Mason told his audience, citing the role of the Tuskegee Airmen and other organizations that worked to end segregation in the United States military in the late 1940s. Those efforts foreshadowed the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
The unit provided personnel for the 332nd Fighter Group, which served in Europe during World War II and has been the subject of such movies as "The Tuskegee Airmen" in 1995 and "Red Tails" in 2012.
Good decision-making and perseverance are the keys to achievement, said Mason, who spoke of African-American servicemen who endured bigotry and oppression to open the doors of opportunity.
Opportunity was a consistent theme of the event, which put local K-12 students face-to-face with aviation professionals and vintage military training aircraft.
"I wanted to have this event to show kids that there are more opportunities other than becoming professional athletes and rappers," said event organizer Barry White. "There are all kinds of professions related to aviation, including engineers, air traffic controllers, aircraft mechanics and pilots."
White, an Athens businessman who took up flying three years ago, said he was so impressed with youth aviation events at Tuskegee and Atlanta, he wanted to do one here.
Through sponsorships with the Hixson Museum of Flight, Life Force, the jetport and others, organizers were able to do the event without having to charge for admission, he said.
Inside terminal meeting spaces, student groups discussed aircraft anatomy and handled instrument gauges.
Outside on the sunny concrete airfield, attendees interacted with Life Force personnel, who brought a medical helicopter to the jetport, and watched a formation flyover by three planes of the Swift Club.
Others got to climb inside a couple of 1960s-era North American T-28 Trojan naval training aircraft, which were brought to the event by the Hixson Museum of Flight.
The robust, propeller-driven T-28s were repurposed for close ground support operations during the Vietnam War and armed with heavy machine guns, rockets and bombs, said pilot Andreas Montgomery.
"It's great to see all these vintage aircraft and to meet pilots who care about them and what they are doing," said Cadet Tech. Sgt. Marshall Bellizzi, a Cleveland High School freshman who serves with the Cleveland Composite Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol.
Paul Leach is based in Cleveland. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.