U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. — Franklin Macon's first flight took place as a child in Colorado Springs, Colorado, when he jumped off a chicken coop while holding on to fake wings. Despite the unexpected lack of success he experienced, he knew he wanted to be a pilot. In 1943 he joined the Army Air Corps after the creation of the Tuskegee program allowed African-Americans to fill military pilot positions, which were previously occupied exclusively by whites.
On Aug. 26 at the age of 92, Macon sat on the airfield at the U.S. Air Force Academy, waiting to take off in the early morning.
Despite the numerous cameras angling to get shots of his face as he sat in one of the cadet flying team's T-41s, Macon's face was determined as he stared at the array of instruments in front of him, focused solely on the activity at hand. Cadet 1st Class Scott Lafferty adjusted his seat belt, then slowly taxied them onto the runway. The plane gradually picked up speed before taking off and shrinking into a tiny speck in the sky.
The plane touched down an hour later, and Macon and Lafferty were greeted by a chorus of cadets and Airmen, and reporters from local news stations. Macon's grin spread wide across his face as he tried to explain why this flight meant so much to him.
"I really, really, really enjoyed it," he said. "We went up and flew down around Pikes Peak and Royal Gorge. We had a great flight."
Amy Lee, Macon's girlfriend of 10 years, was on hand to witness the moment.
"This is so important to him," she said. "I think he feels he may not get another chance to fly again. He is totally a pilot. There used to be an airplane factory here in Colorado Springs, and he would go out and hang around, he would sweep the floors and wash the planes to earn enough money to have a half hour of flying time. Flying was his first love, and it still is."
One of Macon's jobs with the Army Air Corps was to train cadet pilots on what became the Academy airfield. He spent the majority of the war flying here, and never saw overseas combat.
"I went to Tuskegee, and it was a great school, but we didn't have all the things the cadets here have," he said. "The cadets are getting one of the best educations I think you can get anywhere. I wish I could have gone to school here."
Lafferty, a member of the cadet flying team, said flying with Macon was a humbling experience.
"The fact that they let a 21-year-old cadet fly a 92-year-old national war hero was pretty cool," Lafferty said. "Just a little bit of pressure. For most of the flight we talked about what it was like to fly back in World War II – (Macon) said there were a lot less rules and a lot more fun. They used road maps to find out where they were going."
Navigation isn't the only thing that's changed since Macon was in the service. While Macon was in the Army Air Corps the military was still segregated, although he said he initially didn't care about it.
"My motive was one thing — learn how to fly airplanes," he said. "Anything else was unimportant."
However, eventually the realities of segregation became too much to ignore.
"I had a hard time handling (segregation), and I couldn't see where I could make any rank or actually do what I wanted to do, which was be a test pilot," he said. "But I wish I had stayed in, I really do."
Macon tied that to the advice he gave to the listening cadets.
"You're in a great service," he said. "Do everything you can and put forth all the effort you can to make it even greater."
As one of the last original Tuskegee Airmen prepared to walk off the airfield, someone called out a final question.
"So next time you come out, how about a tandem jump?"
"Why not?" Macon asked, and laughed.