Retired Brig. Gen. Dan Cherry, an Aviation Heritage Park board member, beamed with pride as he spoke about retired Air Force Gen. Lloyd W. “Fig” Newton, a man he described as his “brother” prior to Saturday’s Hangar Party fundraiser at the Bowling Green-Warren County Regional Airport.
Newton, the first African American pilot in the Air Force’s Thunderbirds squadron, was a special guest at the yearly event. Originally from Ridgeland, S.C., Newton notched 269 combat missions in Vietnam and became a four-star general before his retirement in 2000.
Newton spent part of his career, which spanned more than 34 years, flying with Cherry in the Thunderbirds in the 1970s. Cherry said it’s been a fun weekend for him because he’s gotten to spend a lot of time with his “good friend.”
“We flew together on the Thunderbirds team, and when you are in an intense organization like that with one challenge after another, you remember those days,” Cherry said. “Those were days when we just depended on each other, trusted each other, and those relationships don’t die.”
This year, the party’s theme was “Breaking Barriers,” and two groundbreakers in particular were applauded for their efforts to erase racial obstacles in the aviation field – Newton and Willa Brown.
Brown, a Glasgow native, was posthumously honored as the first African American woman to hold both a mechanic’s license and a commercial pilot’s license. Brown was also an activist and instructor, training many of the males who became the Tuskegee Airmen that were featured in an on-site exhibit.
The party also featured the unveiling of a recently restored Piper J-3 Cub. The 1930s-era aircraft was similar to the one flown by Brown, and it was also the first model Newton ever flew in during his days at Tennessee State University. The aircraft will soon be displayed at the park in Brown’s honor.
“I think it’ll be tremendously inspirational to young African Americans, to women, and for sure to African American women and people of color in general,” Newton said. “All of this is bigger than any of us, it’s bigger than all of us together. It’s what it represents. I think that it really speaks to who we are and what we are as a nation – you bring these various groups together, which we have always been, and when you include that entire population, all kinds of extraordinary things can happen.”
Gates opened at 5 p.m. and remained open until 10 p.m. To get through them, children 5 and under paid nothing, children aged 6-12 paid $15 and adults paid $40. The all-inclusive ticket gave attendees access to plenty of fun, including a barbecue dinner, drinks and a concert by Bueler’s Day Off, a local band that played popular dance music beginning at 8 p.m.
Joe Tinius, president of the Aviation Heritage Park board of directors, said the park expected “somewhere between 700 and 800 people at the 13th annual Hangar Party, which is the one “major” fundraiser the park puts on.
Tinius said the board is counting on the party to raise somewhere around $70,000 this year, which would cover all of the park’s operational costs. He also expressed gratitude that so many had traveled to the event from far away, including Newton and three tables of Brown’s descendants.
Jean Mansfield was in attendance to honor her cousin’s historic achievements. Mansfield said it’s “really cool” to see Brown, a member of her family, memorialized for her outstanding contributions in so many different areas.
“I’ll be happy for her,” Mansfield said about her anticipated reaction to seeing the aircraft unveiling. “I’ll be happy that people finally know that she was involved in something like this. It’s been a long time coming, it really has, it should have been already done. But you know, people take their time about stuff, so that’s the way it is.”
Stacy Letton, Brown’s great niece and a Chicago native, was also on hand to enjoy the “wonderful” festivities. Letton said it was an honor to help out with the event, and for the family to be invited to Brown’s “home turf” after the pioneer had been honored in the Windy City on several occasions.
“It’s very special because she’s part of history,” Letton said. “She’s part of Kentucky history, she’s part of black history, she’s a part of American history, so you’re kinda tapping into a lot of things – she’s just now being discovered and given some of the credit due that she deserved many years ago.”
Maxine Ray, vice chair of the Bowling Green African American Museum, was “anxious” to see Brown’s plane. Ray said the museum is particularly interested in locals who have served their country, and ever since one of Ray’s children was in the Air Force, aviation has also “played a big part” in her personal life.
“A lot of people don’t know, but African Americans were in a lot of firsts,” Ray said. “Not only in her being the first black female, but they were in a lot of firsts that a lot of people don’t know about or realize. A lot of the inventions that have been invented, a lot of African Americans did that, so it’s real exciting to be the first, see the first, know about the first. It’s history and I’m into history and I like studying history and learning all I can about it.”
Cherry said the park is proud that Brown will not only be the first woman, but also the first African American to be honored at the facility. Cherry is excited to tell guests about all of Brown’s feats “forever more,” and Newton said he was “very impressed” with how organizers “highlighted” Brown’s story.
“Most of the stories that exist out at Aviation Heritage Park were lost in history,” Cherry said. “And so that’s been one of the great benefits for us doing this – we’ve found these wonderful stories and we’ve been able to bring them to life with aircraft exhibits at Aviation Heritage Park and, as a result, those stories become motivational and inspirational to younger generations and that’s our mission. That’s our whole purpose.”