Last spring, a good friend and mentor of mine, Vincent Mickens, who’s the founder and CEO of the Private Air Media Group, shared a special trip he was putting together for a good friend of his.
He told me this friend was a veteran who served in World War II, the Korean War, and the war in Vietnam. Throughout his 30 years of service, this friend, Vince explained, flew more than 400 missions and served as a commander on two separate occasions. In his post-retirement, he was being honored for this life in public service along with a host of rightfully earned accolades, including a Congressional Gold Medal, induction into the National Aviation Hall of Fame, and, in 2020, at the ripe old age of 100, a promotion to brigadier general.
To make a long week boring, days before that, he flipped the coin at Super Bowl LIV in Miami. He was the oldest living Tuskegee Airman—one of nine men still living who overcame racial barriers with excellence to pave a pathway for Black pilots.
The man was Brigadier General Charles Edward McGee.
“This was some friend,” I told Vince. “What’s this trip you’re putting together?”
Vince explained that when McGee lived in Kansas City, Missouri, he was the manager of the Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport (KMKC) from 1980 to 1982. After that, he served on the Kansas City Aviation Department’s Aviation Advisory Council.
Last summer, the city wanted to recognize the brigadier general’s life of public service and contribution to its region, so city officials decided to rename the general aviation terminal at KMKC after him—the Charles E. McGee General Aviation Terminal. The city planned a ceremony that featured everyone from former mayor Charles Wheeler—the airport’s namesake—to the current mayor, Quinton Lucas, along with a host of esteemed officials.
The scene was set, except they needed a way to get Brig. Gen. McGee to Kansas City. He had since moved to Maryland after his wife Frances died in 1994. Plus, at a 101, as the world entered into the second year of the pandemic, it would be impractical to expect that he would get on board an airliner to get there.
While there had been other commemorative events in his honor that the brigadier general had to turn down, this one was special. It was Kansas City, his home with Frances. It would mean so much to him to attend if there were a way.
This is where Mickens came in. He and McGee formed a friendship over the years, and Mickens decided to leverage his aviation network to make it happen. He reached out to Textron Aviation (NYSE: TXT), which provided a Cessna Citation CJ4 Gen2 to transport the brigadier general, his daughter Yvonne, Mickens, and myself to be a part of this special moment.
When we finally did the trip in June 2021, the experience was a success. But Textron Aviation wanted to do even more. Flying us first to the headquarters in Wichita, Kansas, president and CEO Ron Draper and other executives hosted us and provided a personal tour of the headquarters and manufacturing facilities.
The following day, Textron Aviation’s flight crew ferried us over to Kansas City, Missouri (KMKC), where FAA Administrator Steve Dickson announced the naming of three KMCI RNAV approach waypoints in honor of McGee.
It was the trip of a lifetime. But I began to notice a trend. Mickens was putting together other trips that year for the brigadier general.
He told FLYING that the Textron Aviation trip “set the tone for what we were going to do from that point on.”
By the end of the year, there would be four more trips that allowed McGee to “receive his flowers.”
- July 27, 2021: Honored at the EAA Aviation Museum Skyscape Theater during EAA AirVenture. Flown in a Falcon 900EX to Wittman Regional Airport, Oshkosh, Wisconsin, courtesy of Dassault Falcon Jet (OTCMKTS: DASTY)
- October 19, 2021: Awarded the Reagan Distinguished American lifetime achievement award. Flown outbound in a Falcon 8X to Van Nuys Airport, returning on a Cessna Citation M2 courtesy of Dassault Falcon Jet and AOPA.
- November 11, 2021, Veterans Day: Honored at the dedication of the McGee Hinz Theater at the Commemorative Air Force Henry B. Tippie National Aviation Education Center in Dallas. Flown roundtrip in a Cessna Citation Excel business jet from Washington Dulles to Dallas Executive Airport courtesy of Textron Aviation.
- December 6, 2021: Honored for his 102nd birthday at the 99th Flying Training Squadron, Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph. Flown on a U.S. Air Force C-37 VIP Air Transport from Joint Base Andrews courtesy of the United States Air Force.
I caught up with Vince that same December and we realized there were enduring themes that formed story arcs, and that by the final trip that the brigadier general took, it was as if things had come full circle for McGee.
In many ways, life is like a circle. Like a circle, life can sometimes seem shapeless, without edges, with an infinite number of scattered instances and points of us just rounding out our days. However, because all these mundane points may not make sense, humans are wired to look for meaning and patterns to make sense of everything. Many points of our lives, either through themes or time, connect to form arcs. They give us tidier narratives because of definite starts and ends, and if you put enough of the arcs together, we get a circle, the circle of life. Here, I discuss the arc of friendship, and a life of public service, in which business aviation serves both ends.
Arc 1: A Friendship Built on Honor … and Business Jets
Mickens first had the opportunity to meet McGee in 2012. Mickens was working for the NBAA, and that year, the organization would be honoring three Tuskegee Airmen, including McGee, who was at the time a colonel, with its Meritorious Service to Aviation Award at the convention in Orlando, Florida. When Ed Bolen tapped Mickens to be a chaperone for McGee, he said he was caught off guard.
Mickens admitted that though he’d heard of the Tuskegee Airmen, his history was rusty. But he did his homework and learned he was in the presence of an icon.
Flying with McGee on a Learjet 60, he made the most of the moment in 2012, and it was the sparking of what would become a unique friendship.
“That was really kind of an eye-opening situation for me,” Mickens shared, calling McGee “very humble” because “if I didn’t do or ask, do the research, or ask him questions, he wasn’t going to volunteer.” “To this day,” Mickens said, “he’s never been that type of guy.”
They kept in touch for years, but it was when McGee visited the NBAA headquarters years later that it clicked for Mickens: “This guy’s amazing,” he said to himself. “I thought, it would be really great if I could do some things for this guy, that maybe no one else has done that would kind of bring attention to who he is and what he’s done.”
As McGee approached his 99th birthday, Mickens resolved to get the general in the air—this time, back in the flight deck. On December 8, 2018, McGee co-piloted a HondaJet with former U.S. Air Force pilot Glenn Gonzales from Dulles International Airport (KIAD) to Hampton Roads Exec Airport (KPVG).
It seemed McGee’s health blossomed after that, and Mickens, now a victim of his own success, realized that as McGee was approaching his centennial year, he’d really have to go big.
It was an eventful year. That July 2019, he’d have McGee flown roundtrip to EAA AirVenture 2019 in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, in a Cessna Citation CJ4 courtesy of Textron Aviation. Then, on December 6, the eve of his turning 100, McGee flew pilot-in-command in a Cirrus Vision Jet, co-piloting with Cirrus demo pilot Boni Caldeira flying to Dover Air Force Base (KDOV) in Delaware from Frederick Municipal Airport (KFDK).
The very next day, turning 100, Mickens arranged for McGee to fly with AOPA’s president and CEO Mark Baker in a Cessna Citation M2 to Arnold Palmer Regional Airport (KLBE) from Frederick.
“It was really nice to do those things,” Mickens reflected. “And then the pandemic hit.”
As his birthday approached, Mickens wanted to outdo himself, but pandemic restrictions called for something more subdued.
“The only thing I ended up doing was arranging a flyover of a P-51 Mustang over his home in Bethesda. He even had a handheld radio to talk to the pilot who flew over at a low altitude.”
Mickens explained that in early 2021, as he spent time with McGee, his family explained that they’d received so many requests for the brigadier general to attend events in his honor, but the circumstances of the pandemic deterred any travel.
That’s when Mickens said, “’I’ll make a pledge to you right now’…and this was in the spring of 2021. ‘For the rest of the year, I’ll make sure that anything that you really want to attend, I’ll see about getting you on a private business jet.’”
This led to the first trip to Kansas City.
But there’s another arc to this story, and the rest of the trips help us connect the dots.
Arc 2: From Segregation Training and Living to the Highest Honors
When McGee was 22, the U.S. entered World War II. He would have to report to Tuskegee, Alabama, to train with a group of Army Air Corps cadets, the first Black fighter pilots in the country, learning to fly in a PT-17 Stearman in 1942. He earned his Tuskegee Airman pilot wings on June 30, 1943, and began his prolific military flying career. But life for the “Red Tails” was far from rosy. Most of the country was still segregated. Even with his impeccable record, and status as a captain, McGee still faced discrimination at home. Shockingly, when he was assigned to bases in Kansas and California, McGee wasn’t allowed to bring his family along because he wasn’t able to buy or rent a home.
So how does this turn around? Mickens shares that during the return trip in October 2021, they had to make a fuel stop in Wichita. Coincidentally, some U.S. Air Force students were training at the same airport and had the chance to meet McGee.
“They were meeting somebody that trained 80 years prior to the training that they were currently doing.”
More importantly, their training aircraft were representative of the iconic red tail, in honor of the Tuskegee Airmen, including the newly announced Red Tail: T-7A Red Hawk.
For McGee, he says, “Now 80 years later, he gets to see that the aircraft that they are going to be having pilot trainees in for the next 50 years, is going to be an aircraft dedicated to a representative of the legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen some 80 years prior.”
After that, there’s one more trip that Mickens says would’ve brought it all “full circle.”
“I thought what better way than to bring this full circle than fly him out to the Air Education and Training Command headquarters at Joint Base San Antonio Randolph in Texas and let him experience that whole dynamic, which is the only active flying training squadron, the 99th, dating back to the Tuskegee days.”
It was even more appropriate that the charter of choice would be the Air Force’s VIP air transportation in their Gulfstream G550 (NYSE: GD) or C-37.
For icing on the cake, on his 102nd birthday, McGee received a call from Vice President Kamala Harris.
Today, we lost an American hero, Brigadier General Charles McGee. A member of the Tuskegee Airmen, he completed over 400 missions during World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. I had the honor of calling him last month on his 102nd birthday to thank him for his service to our nation. pic.twitter.com/p8MfrR1hQ3— Vice President Kamala Harris (@VP) January 17, 2022
The Circle of Life: December 7, 1919-January 16, 2022
Life is like a circle, one with an infinite number of points, but also whole, with a beginning and ending. On Sunday, January 16, Brig. Gen. Charles McGee completed his circle of life.
Business Aviation at its Best
“It wouldn’t have been possible without business aviation,” I shared with Vince, reflecting that the OEMs and other providers who supported his plan, allowed McGee to be honored for his life of public service.
Sometimes business aviation gets a bad rap, but then there are moments like this that tell the full story.