Class 45-H-TE 11/20/1945 2nd Lt. 0843351 Jersey City, NJ
Unlike a lot of Tuskegee Airman pilots, Robert “Bob” Ashby did not grow up building airplane models and wishing he could fly. He was more concerned with getting around on the ground. “I rode my bike and took the bus or subway to get where I needed to go,” he said. “I think I only rode in a car once or twice in my growing up years.” Eligible for the draft in WWII, he (wisely) figured out that pilots typically get to sleep in at least a tent at night whereas infantrymen rarely had such luxury. Because he delivered the local black-oriented newspaper to earn money, he knew black men were being accepted for the military flight-training program at Tuskegee so he opted to try for the USAAC after high school graduation. In the meantime, he joined the USAAC Reserve program.
Having graduated from high school in the spring of 1944, Bob was called to active duty in August. After receiving some college training and passing various tests, he was sent to Tuskegee in December for cadet training. He graduated as a bomber pilot post-war in November 1945 and was sent to Japan, assigned to a pilot replacement depot. Bob was twice ordered to report to a flight unit and twice turned away because of his skin color. He was removed from flight status because he was denied the circumstances that would let him fly the required four hours a month.
Serving three more years in Japan, he returned to the states in May 1949 to join up with the 332nd Fighter Squadron where his flight status was restored. In July, the 332nd was disbanded due to the integration of the armed forces.
After three years of moving from base to base, Bob was ordered to Korea where he flew Douglas B-26s in combat.
After more assignments – including a stint in England – Bob retired from the Air Force in July 1965 with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Now a civilian, Bob knew he wanted to continue to work in the aviation industry. He was hired by United as a flight ops instructor and made such an impression that he was chosen for the team that created the 747 flight training program for the airline. However, when the time came to fly the bird, even though he had 12 years of jet experience, he was furloughed under the “last hired/first fired” business rule because the airline had too many pilots.
He sent out applications to other airlines and did follow up, including actually stopping in at various airline company headquarters to check the status of his application. Eastern Airlines told him to his face that they felt he was too old and they were still reviewing his application! He didn’t give up, though, and one Saturday stopped in at Frontier in Denver. To his surprise and delight, he was asked if he could start class on Monday!
That class was groundbreaking for two reasons – Bob was the first Tuskegee Airman to be in training as a commercial pilot and one of his classmates, Emily Howell, was the first woman in that position. Bob rose through the ranks at Frontier, attaining the rank of Captain. He flew for Frontier until 1986 when he reached the mandatory retirement age of 60, the first black man to have done so.
Bob has been a supporter of the CAF Red Tail Squadron for many years. He said, “I met Don Hinz when the Squadron brought the P-51C Mustang to Prescott, AZ. He gave me a ride in it then. He was an outstanding individual. I saw the Mustang again in Houston last year and also experienced the RISE ABOVE Traveling Exhibit.I think the Squadron is doing a tremendous thing with their mission to go out and publicize the Tuskegee Airmen’s role in American history.”
The CAF Red Tail Squadron is a volunteer-driven organization dedicated to educating audiences across the country about the history and legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, America’s first black military pilots and their support personnel. Learn more at www.redtail.org.