As long as he could remember, Iain Lanphier knew he wanted to be like his great-grandfather, Tuskegee Airman Brig. Gen. Charles McGee. For Halloween when Lanphier was 2, he wore a flight suit, excited to take a picture with his hero. Now, at 15, he is an aspiring aviator.
On Sunday, Lanphier smiled ear-to-ear, flashing his braces, as he helped his 101-year-old great-grandfather out of a car at the private terminal of Dulles International Airport to board a flight bound for Oshkosh, Wis., where they planned to attend the largest aviation event in the world.
“I want to be like him,” said Lanphier, who was seeing his great-grandfather for the first time since before the pandemic. “I hope to touch people’s lives just like Papa Gee.”
One of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen, McGee was setting off with friends and family on a private plane to EAA AirVenture at Oshkosh 2021, where the barrier-breaking retired fighter pilot hopes to inspire the next generation of aspiring aviators, especially those of color. In 2019, nearly 700,000 people attended the conference.
Over the course of his 30-year career in the Air Force, McGee fought in three wars and became the first Black man to command a stateside Air Force wing and a base in the integrated Air Force. With the tails of his plane painted red, he was one of 900 Black pilots who trained at the segregated Tuskegee airfield in Alabama, overcoming racism to fly patrol during World War II.
McGee was honored at President Donald Trump’s 2020 State of the Union for his bravery, and last month, the Kansas City Airport renamed a terminal after the Kansas City native.
“The young folks are the future of this country,” McGee said Sunday before boarding his flight to Wisconsin. “I don’t have too much time left here, so mentoring them is one of the most important things I can do.”
He paid homage to the red-painted tails on Sunday, wearing a red Tuskegee Airmen windbreaker, yellow and red-trimmed shoes clad with his airplane’s number, 78, and a dark Tuskegee hat. He said he’s always representing the airmen, wherever he goes and whatever he does.
“That’s who I am,” he said through a blue mask with an airplane in the center.
The extent of his influence was on display throughout the private terminal at Dulles.
Shaesta Waiz, the youngest woman to make a solo-flight around the world in a single-engine aircraft, told the general how he showed her that someone who looked like her – Waiz is from Afghanistan – could defy the odds.
“A lot of my inspiration and understanding that this was something that I could do came from heroic people like Gen. McGee,” said Waiz, 34, in a conference room in the terminal. Many underrepresented people question if they can make it in aviation, she said. “Gen. McGee shows us that we can.”
At the other end of the room, the mothers of Lanphier and 13-year-old Joshua Gibson, an aspiring aviator who is joining McGee on the trip to Oshkosh, discussed how special it was for their sons to have a role model like McGee.
Gibson, who had met McGee at the general’s 100th birthday, was honored and nervous to be there, wondering why he, of all the hopeful 13-year-old aviators, got to fly with the legend. His mom, Tyra Estwick, knows McGee will continue to inspire her son.
“As a young Black male, he set the way,” said Estwick, of Rockville, Md. “He is living history.”
After the preflight celebration finished, the 10 passengers made their way to the plane. Lanphier helped his great-grandfather stand up, put his arms through the red windbreaker and eased him into a wheelchair.
As McGee wheeled himself to the plane waiting on the runway, Lanphier walked slowly behind him and took in his surroundings. The proud family waving on the runway to send him off. Photographers snapping pictures of the multigenerational McGee legacy. The sheer honor that his great-grandfather commanded.
“It’s kind of a surprise every time,” Lanphier said as he made his way toward the steps of the plane. “I’m only 15 – I’m still not used to any of this.”