DALLAS - As part of Engineer Week and Black History Month observances hosted by the Environmental Protection Agency Region 6, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Southwestern Division and the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, two U.S. Air Force pilots shared their personal stories with more than 500 students and federal workers.
The two pilots from completely different eras of aeronautics met in Dallas Feb. 26. One was Lt. Calvin J. Spann, one of the first African-American pilots in the U.S. Army Air Corps and founding member of the Tuskegee Airmen assigned to the famed 332nd Fighter Group serving in Europe during World War II. The other, Col. Benjamin A. Drew, Air Force officer and NASA astronaut, is currently the last African-American astronaut to fly aboard the space shuttle and perform a spacewalk.
The two were initially invited to speak at a Black History Month program and were also able to support Engineer Week activities in the morning at the Perot Museum with Brig. Gen. David Hill, commander, Southwestern Division. Both Hill and Drew spoke to more than 275 students, fifth through eighth graders, from three local schools focusing on the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics education to our country.
"The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is known as the Nation's Engineers, because our nation turns to us to solve both simple and complex engineering issues," said Hill. "We built many of the iconic American landmarks like the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, but we also build things close to home, such as locks and dams, and levees and ports. It is vital to our nation's economic and technological strength that we develop robust STEM capabilities to help us continue building strong for future generations of Americans."
Drew gave an overview spanning Space Shuttle Mission STS-133 from launch to landing to the International Space Station and Space Shuttle Discovery's final mission, narrating a video of the mission to the amazement of the students.
"Whether engineers, airmen or astronauts, we have only advanced by understanding the world around us," said Drew. "Whether you are exploring new environments or preserving our own environment, seek to understand the world around you. Follow your curiosity."
Although he did not speak, the 91-year-old Spann was recognized and his Tuskegee Airman experience, and how their courage and valor helped them to triumph was highlighted to the students. Throughout his life he encouraged students to make a commitment to excel in the study of mathematics and science, and reminded them through preparation and perseverance they can succeed.
"Everything we do should be geared towards developing children, our future," said Spann during a previous interview. "You have to reach everyone, down to the youngest and try your best to develop their dreams."
After delivering a STEM-filled presentation to wide-eyed children Spann and Drew shifted audiences and addressed more than 200 federal employees as guest speakers for a co-sponsored Black History Month program at the EPA's Region 6 office in downtown Dallas.
Spann's wife, Gwenelle, gave a presentation about her husband's life and experiences from growing up admiring barnstormers and vowing to become a pilot to his journey to the Tuskegee Flight School to flying bomber escort missions during World War II with the 100th Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group.
While assigned to the 332nd, he flew in the longest bomber escort mission of the 15th Air Force, a 1,600-mile round trip mission on March 24, 1945, from Ramitelli, Italy, to Berlin, Germany, to destroy a Daimler-Benz tank manufacturing facility under the leadership of his squadron commander, Capt. Roscoe Brown. Both would engage German ME-262 jet fighters with Brown shooting down one of three jets knocked out of the sky by Tuskegee Airmen that day.
From Spann flying the then state-of-the-art P-51 Mustang fighter in the 1940s, Drew would bring the audience beyond the sky and into space via the Space Shuttle Discovery. Similar to his earlier presentation to kids at the Perot Museum, the astronaut would provide a firsthand account of his Space Shuttle Mission STS-133 to the International Space Station.
Drew acknowledged his predecessor Spann's heroism and sacrifices to make things easier for the following generations of African-Americans wanting to serve their country and reach to the sky and stars.
"We stood on the shoulders of the accomplishment of people like the Tuskegee Airmen so that today we no longer have to carry the words first or only as part of our accomplishments," said Drew.
Two pilots, two eras and two different experiences, together, inspiring our youth to dream big and pursue STEM careers, additionally reminding the adults how far we have come from years of segregation on earth to diversity is space. The two airmen captivated the audience triggering reflection and inspiration.
"It was an honor to witness the two accomplished guest speakers who have left their mark on American history," said Ronald Richards, Southwestern Division Regional Logistics manager about the presentation during the EPA's program. "As I listened, I recalled my own history of great black Americans and their contributions to our country's success. My father taught me and my siblings to study and be the best that we could be; and my grandmother's nephew, Lt. Col. Bradley Biggs, was the first black commander of the all-black "Triple Nickels" 555 Airborne Battalion during WWII."
Capt. Edwin Jimenez, aide-de-camp to Hill, said he was honored to meet the two American heroes. "They pursued their dreams and broke barriers at the same time. Their commitment to this country in light of the social prejudices that existed is truly inspirational."