Local News

Generations Come Together To Realize Dream, Future of Flight

Posted March 18, 2003 1:36 a.m. EST

— Dec. 17, 2003 marks 100 years since the Wright brothers' first powered flight. Throughout the year at the Wright Brothers Memorial, the nation is honoring those who contributed to aviation.

The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-American pilots to fly combat missions. Despite the prejudice they faced for the color of their skin, they flew more than 200 escort missions and never lost an aircraft.

Nearly 1,000 African-Americans were trained as pilots at Tuskegee airfield in Alabama from 1942 to 1946.

The Tuskegee Airmen played a significant part in the history of aviation, but the celebration of flight is also about the future. Two people, separated by seven decades, are joined with the same dream to fly.

Steven Saunders, 10, had never been close to an airplane before, but he recently got the chance to fly one. Saunders is taking part in the Wright Flight Program, a school course that encourages students to maintain their grades, stay drug-free and learn about aviation.

"I imagine putting my hands on the control so the plane can take off the ground," he said before his first flight.

"When that aircraft finally leaves the ground, when you break the bonds of gravity, you become airborne. The sky is yours. You're free," 1st Lt. Wilson Eagleson said.

Eagleson, 83, knows a lot about freedom. He has been fighting for it most of his life. He is one of the original Tuskegee Airmen.

Before they could fly for their country, the Tuskegee Airmen had to fight for their rights.

"They said that the colored people, as we were called in those days, did not have skills to control complicated military machinery," Eagleson said.

"Other people said they could not do it, but they kept on trying," Saunders said.

It is that determination that bonds these two.

Saunders fights to maintain his grades.

"It's been kind of tough for me, but I've managed to get through it," he said.

Eagleson fought for equality.

"We had a dream 50 years ago, before Martin Luther King had a dream. We had a dream to fly," said Eagleson, who has never woken from his dream.

In the shadow of the Wright Brothers Memorial, the experienced pilot takes the back seat on this flight so he can look over the shoulder of a new generation of African-American pilots -- a generation much like his own and much like the Wright brothers 100 years ago.

"Never quit, Just keep on doing. It doesn't matter what other people say," Eagleson said. "If you strive hard enough and long enough, you can do anything."

Anything ... where not even the sky is the limit.

"You ever watch Star Trek? I'm thinking that will be us," Eagleson said.

"I think I can and I think I'll try," Steven said.