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“I do have hope”: All-Black heritage flight takes look back, look forward at Air Force

Military members in flight suits stand shoulder to shoulder in front of a KC-10 Extender aircraft

An all-Black aircrew from the 9th Air Refueling Squadron, Travis Air Force Base, California, poses for a picture in front of a KC-10 Extender after a routine aerial refueling mission Feb. 18, 2021. The purpose of the heritage flight was to honor Black History Month. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Traci Keller)

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. – With palms sweat-slicked from hours at the controls and eyes heavy from poring over switches and levels, Capt. Christopher Tobiere, 9th Air Refueling Squadron KC-10 Extender instructor pilot, takes a short swig from his canteen and flashes back a grin from the flight deck.

“When I find myself struggling, I always think of how much the Tuskegee Airmen had to go through to get their wings,” he said.

Tobiere, the aircraft commander of an all-Black heritage flight that took off Feb. 18 from Travis Air Force Base, California, knows he hasn’t faced the same adversity that the aviation icons did. Even so, he’s careful to stay conscious of what challenges he negotiates as a Black Airman in today’s Air Force.

It wasn’t always that way, though, he said.

“Believe it or not, I was uncomfortable with Black History Month about 10 years ago,” Tobiere admitted. “Being the only Black person 99 percent of the time, I didn’t like the idea of highlighting my struggles. I wanted to stay under the radar and avoid rocking the boat. I let ‘jokes’ slide, even when they made me feel uncomfortable. But as I mature and raise my son, I understand how important it is to highlight Black history in the United States and how it has shaped who we are today.”

On Feb. 11, acting Secretary of the Air Force John Roth addressed the force, stating, “We have a responsibility to defend the nation for all Americans.”

In regards to the heritage flight, Tobiere hopes it will become more than just a celebration, but a catalyst for deeper conversation—something he feels is vital for the Air Force moving forward.

“This flight is awesome because like that tough conversation about race, diversity and unconscious bias, it is starting to become the ‘norm,’” he explained. “Instead of this flight making people feel uncomfortable, it should give them an opportunity to reflect. If nothing else, it’s a fantastic conversation starter, which is the first and most important step in changing the Air Force for the better.”

As the flight lands, Tobiere again reflects on the Tuskegee Airmen. What America had they lived in, and perhaps more importantly, what about it, despite the flood of abuse and injustice they’d faced, was worth fighting for, dying for and, ultimately, making better?

“The first black pilots were trained in 1940,” he said. “Racial segregation wasn’t banned until the 1960s, so when you talk about dedication, perseverance and being resilient, they’re a perfect example. I owe my life to every American who fought and died so that I can be free. That’s a given. But we owe this conversation to the Tuskegee Airmen who fought for a country that didn’t support them and treated them as less than human. That’s why I think it’s important to remember and honor these trailblazers.

“We are not a perfect organization. We have failed each other in more ways than one, but I do have hope that we can turn this around. I don’t know when, but for the first time, I do know how, and that’s comforting.”

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