En español | It wasn't until Herb Jones III and Rodney Jones got older that they understood the impact of having a father who was a Tuskegee Airman.
"He never really talked about it in the context of the historical significance of the Tuskegee Airmen, which we found out about a lot later on in life,” said Rodney Jones, 63, “when the Tuskegee Airmen finally started to receive a lot of long-overdue recognition and accolades from the country and the rest of the world."
The Tuskegee Airmen consisted of young Black men like Herb Jones Jr., born in 1923, who enlisted during World War II to become the country's first Black military pilots. They trained at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama. Despite racism, segregation and doubts over their abilities, the Tuskegee Airmen went on to fly missions during the war. Their success ultimately contributed to the desegregation of the U.S. Armed Forces.
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But rather than representing the pinnacle of his aviation career, being a Tuskegee Airman was just the beginning for Jones, who turned his passion for flying into a string of accomplishments over many decades.
"That's been a recurring theme throughout his lifetime as it relates to his Tuskegee Airmen experience, [which was] a springboard to almost 70-plus years of a wonderful aviation career,” Rodney Jones said.
One of their father's early mentors was Chief Alfred Anderson, the primary instructor at the Tuskegee Air Field. The pair originally met when Anderson gave Jones some of his first flight lessons in Arlington, Virginia, during his teenage years. Jones grew up in nearby Washington, D.C.
"My father was a protégé of Chief Anderson and remained friends with Chief Anderson throughout his 70-year career in aviation,” said Rodney Jones, “which he really attributed to his Tuskegee experience that led to other ventures, all in the field of aviation."
Career takes flight after WWII
Despite their military service and training in the U.S. Army Air Corps, a precursor to the U.S. Air Force, Tuskegee Airmen were denied the opportunity to become commercial pilots for major airlines upon returning home after the war.
"So rather than, you know, mope on that, my Dad moved to the next step,” said Jones III, 65.
Jones Jr. spent three decades training aviation cadets at the Columbia Air Center while working for the Civil Air Patrol, from which he retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel. He eventually became a co-owner of the Columbia Air Center, the first Black-owned and operated airfield in Maryland.
Retirement from the Civil Air Patrol didn't leave him grounded. In 1972, Jones and four others purchased a 100-passenger DC-7 aircraft and created the International Air Association, a Black-owned airline. It offered flights to New York, Houston, Miami, the Bahamas and Trinidad.
"My brother and I have fond stories of that. We were the baggage handlers, we were the food providers,” said Jones III. “Nothing like that had been done in the States by African Americans, and we were very proud of that. We thought it was just something cool. We didn't understand the history that we were involved in at the time."
The airline's board of directors consisted of the brothers’ father, aunt and some neighbors from their community in Washington, D.C. The airline operated out of National Airport in Washington and later Martin State Airport outside of Baltimore.
Training the next generation
"In his later years, his whole focus was on young people, exposing them to the field of aviation and allowing them the opportunity to fly,” said Jones III.
In 1987, his father, then in his mid-60s, opened a private flight school of his own, Cloud Club II, where he trained approximately 200 students, many whom did not know he was a Tuskegee Airman.
"I think my father was probably most proud that there were a number of women who he had trained, who ended up with careers as military pilots, commercial pilots, air traffic control individuals and folks who actually had long careers in aviation,” said Rodney Jones.
Even after he truly retired once and for all, Jones still went to the airport every day — sometimes two times a day — well into his 90s.
"Like clockwork, from 11 o'clock to 2 o'clock, you could go down to the airport, and you would see his car parked there,” said Jones III. “He watched folks flying, landing, taking off, talking to the folks. Each and every day up until he was 95 years old, driving himself to the airport every day."
When the brothers expressed concern about their father driving at his age he would reply, “I've been a pilot for decades, and you're going to tell me that I can't drive my car? How many accidents have you had?"
Lt. Col. Herb Jones Jr. passed away on Aug. 26, 2020, at the age of 96.
Aaron Kassraie joined AARP.org as a staff writer and associate editor of veterans’ content in 2019. He previously covered U.S. foreign policy as a correspondent for Kuwait News Agency's Washington bureau and worked in news gathering for USA TODAY and Al Jazeera English.