A PT-13D Stearman used to train the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II touched down in Washington last week, carrying with it the stories and memories of men who helped shape not only the history of aviation, but the history of a nation as well.
The airplane, known as the Spirit of Tuskegee, was used to train African American airmen from 1944 to 1946 at Moton Field, the Alabama facility that served as the only primary flight-training site for African Americans in the Army Air Forces during WWII. During that time, the Spirit of Tuskegee, along with other aircraft, helped train more than 1,000 African American pilots for bombing missions over Italy and North Africa.
The historic airplane was decommissioned in 1946 and used temporarily as a crop duster before sitting derelict for decades. Six years ago, 35-year-old Air Force Capt. Matt Quy bought the open-cockpit biplane at auction and, with the help of his wife Tina over a period of three years, undertook the extensive task of restoration.
Quy wasn't aware of the aircraft's history when he bought the airplane, but later learned about the Stearman's Moton Field origins. The news prompted Quy to dedicate the aircraft to the legacy of the men who helped trigger the desegregation of the American military and, soon after, the American public at large.
"Really the Tuskegeee Airmen are responsible for where we are today in our culture," said Quy.
For the past month, Quy has taken the Spirit of Tuskegee on a tour of the United States, spreading the word about the Tuskegee Airmen at events throughout the country and giving a few original Tuskegee Airmen a chance to take to the skies again in one of the trainers that first launched them into history.
"They're all very excited to take the airplane. I think it brings back a flood of memories," said Quy.
Last week Quy gave a ride to LeRoy Eley, one of about eight original Tuskegee Airmen who've had the opportunity to fly in the restored Stearman. Eley, like others, couldn't hide his excitement about returning to the air in the aircraft.
"He had this huge smile on his face," said Quy. "He was just having a blast."
Quy completed 73 legs in the Stearman during the past 30 days as he zigzagged across the country, putting approximately 55 hours on the airplane.
Last week, the aircraft made its final flight, touching down for the last time at Andrews Air Force Base. The arrival coincided with the Tuskegee Airmen’s National Convention, held just outside of Washington D.C., where dozens of original Tuskegee Airmen and hundreds of others gathered to celebrate the group’s enduring legacy.
The Spirit of Tuskegee will be put on display temporarily at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Dulles before heading to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, where the aircraft will be exhibited when the museum opens in 2015.
Quy hopes the aircraft's presence there will serve as a reminder of the important legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, as well as an inspiration to Americans both young and old.
"I think it's going to tell a good story," he said.