Lt. Col Hiram Mann’s head lifts. He cocks his ear in the direction of the hangar outside the Space Coast Regional Airport in Titusville. He’s hearing the GEICO Skytypers start up the engines of their vintage WWII-era SNJ-2’s. Mann would recognize that sound anywhere – he trained on the Texan T-6 variant of it at the Tuskegee Institute after Pearl Harbor.
“Ah yes,” he tells me, greeting airshow fans at the TICO Warbirds Airshow. “That roar brings back memories.”
He’s 92 now, living at a senior facility in Florida, but flying cover for bombers over Europe in WWII is far from a distant memory.
“I was so naïve I didn’t know they wouldn’t let blacks learn to fly but I was certain America would get into the war and I wanted to do my part.”
He sent a query, ‘where can I learn to fly?’ The answer was a quick one.
“I got a letter back saying there were no facilities to train negroes to fly in any branch of service,” he says. He makes full eye contact when he tells this story. It’s part of his identity and American history and the whole world’s a student to him now. “They didn’t want me so I balled that letter up and went back to being a bell hop in Cleveland. But I kept asking.”
Eventually, after three tries, he became part of the 27th graduating class of the Tuskegee Airmen. He protected bombers over Europe until the war’s end. “In the beginning, no white commanding officers wanted us. But we became the most requested fighter unit once we proved ourselves.”
“Young pilots today have no idea the scale of challenges these Tuskegee Airmen faced,” says Jim Record, one of the original members and pilot with the GEICO Skytypers. “Black pilots were told they were unqualified and unfit to fly.”
History proved otherwise. Not only did Mann and his colleagues master the trainer planes flown today by the Skytypers, but went on to fly P-40 Warhawks, P39s, P47 Thunderbolts and the P51 Mustang. By war’s end, the 332nd Fighter Group of Tuskegee Airmen flew 179 bomber escort missions, shooting down 112 enemy aircraft and destroying another 150 on the ground. They knocked out 600 railway cars and sank one destroyer and 40 barges and boats.
Record gives lectures on the Tuskegee Airmen for the Aviation Program at Dowling College in New York — when he’s not flying with the Skytypers. “The Tuskegee Airmen knew that the only way they would ever overcome the stereotypes of their day was to be twice as good as their white counterparts. That’s why I teach young pilots about them – so they know the legacy they’re part of in aviation.”
The Dean of Dowling College, Tom Daly, is also a solo pilot with the GEICO Skytypers. He started honoring Tuskegee Airmen for their service when he ran New York’s Old Rhinebeck Airshow in the early 2000s.
“What’s amazing about these guys is their humility. They don’t live in the past with negativity and they don’t brag about their accomplishments because they proved themselves the best of the best,” Daly says.
The TICO Warbirds Airshow – the GEICO Skytypers’ season opener – is bringing eight of the remaining Tuskegee Airmen to the flight line in Titusville, honoring the aging veterans with an in-flight salute each day.
“Airshows build awareness for what they did,” Daly says. “It’s not enough that what happened to these guys never happens again. It can never be forgotten.”