Flying with A-Train

Published 12:00 am Friday, June 27, 2008

News that Lt. Col. Chuck Dryden died of natural causes Tuesday brings closer the reality of an ending era.

Dryden was one of the last surviving World War II pioneering black pilots known as the Tuskegee Airman.

He was 87 years old and died of natural causes.

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Dryden was 22 years old when he led six other pilots in a run over Pantelleria, Sicily on June 9, 1943. That date marked the first time in aviation history that African-American pilots of the U.S. Army Air Corps engaged the enemy in aerial combat.

That move blew up the notion that African Americans could not fly; that they would run for cover when the enemy came at them.

A-Train, as he was called, risked life and limb as he and others trained at Tuskegee, Alabama, escorted U.S. and Allied bombers in raids over the enemy’s territory. The group flew more than 15,000 bomb escort missions. They didn’t lose a soul.

And pilots requested these men as their escorts.

In an interview with The Atlanta Constitution several years ago, Dryden told a reporter, “We dared not fail. We dared not fail because the white folks could say, ‘See, we knew they couldn’t do it.'”

This Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame member served 21 years in the military, despite a court martial for buzzing a building. He retired from the military in 1962, but continued teaching others as a professor of air science at Howard University.

The University of Alabama Press published Dryden’s autobiography, “A-Train: Memoirs of a Tuskegee Airman,” 11 years ago.

He did not want his history forgotten. He did not want a nation to forget that a crew of black men turned out to be the best the Air Force had in terms of fighter escort.

Dryden may be dead, but his legacy will continue as long as historians teach.