At 84, his joints stiff with arthritis, Lt. Col. Hiram Mann had to be lifted gingerly into the cockpit of the World War II-era plane. But as the PT-17 Stearman flew into the hot Florida sky, Mann flashed a grin and a thumbs-up sign and went back to his days training in a plane like this at Tuskegee.
"The pilot asked me if I wanted to take the controls and fly the plane," Mann said afterward. "I joked that I didn't want to kill him or myself. So I just sat back and enjoyed the flight."
The Tuskegee Airmen pride themselves on never having lost a bomber they escorted in World War II. But the black aviators and support personnel, who overcame prejudice at home and German fighters abroad, are succumbing to old age and illness, with more than 50 members dying in the past year. Fewer than 200 of the 992 aviators remain.
So it was that the group declared that last week's annual convention would be its last. It will join with another, younger group of black pilots for future gatherings.
"There is history in this room," said Rodney A. Coleman of Arlington, a former Air Force captain and former assistant secretary of the Air Force, as he moved around a hotel ballroom at the opening day luncheon among the men everybody had gathered to honor.
Retired Col. Charles E. McGee of Bethesda was there, smiling as he swapped stories with comrades he hadn't seen since last year's convention. Lt. Col. William Holton and his wife, Judy, of Columbia hugged friends as they made their way to their table. Retired Lt. Col. Charles "A Train" Dryden, who used to teach ROTC at Howard University, was interrupted several times for pictures and to sign autographs.
They enjoyed rock-star status -- at one point, it took Dryden 90 minutes to cross the hall to an interview because he was stopped so many times. "Hold on, I've got a hug coming," he would say. When retired Col. Lee Archer, 85, of Los Angeles, who flew 169 missions and was the only black flier designated an ace in World War II, walked into a room, even other pilots stopped and stared. "That's Lee Archer," people whispered. Visitors snapped up T-shirts, posters, books and toy reproductions of the P-51 Mustang "redtail" aircraft the fliers made famous.
"These men fought for their country but were denied permission to eat in the same dining hall where German prisoners of war could eat," Coleman said. "They put their lives on the line but were denied the basic right to drink from a water fountain. They sacrificed, and the country owes them a tremendous debt."
The 34th annual convention of the Tuskegee Airmen, the legendary black pilots, bombardiers, navigators and support personnel of the Army Air Forces opened with a more somber tribute: the traditional Lonely Eagles Ceremony for members who had died since last year's convention in Omaha. The names were recited and a bell rung in honor of each as members, their loved ones and supporters of the organization sat silently, followed along in their programs or wept softly.
"There aren't many of us left anymore," said Dryden, 84, who lives in Atlanta and was portrayed in the film "The Tuskegee Airmen" by actor Cuba Gooding Jr. "Every year, we lose more and more of our members. That's why we work so much with children. As we age, we want to make sure the children know the history."
The five-day convention, which ended yesterday, drew not only some of the fliers, who were the best-known members of the group, but also some of the thousands of former instructors, mechanics, nurses, janitors and others who worked behind the scenes to make sure the pilots achieved success, said retired Col. Len Nevels, who orchestrated the event.
The convention included an exhibit hall for military memorabilia where Tuskegee Airmen kept vigil, sharing stories of their exploits. Festivities included a youth day for hundreds of schoolchildren.
"The conventions started out as reunions, but to ensure that the legacy continues, we now reach out to the community to make sure our . . . youths are aware of the tremendous opportunities in the broad spectrum of aviation," Nevels said.
The Tuskegee Airmen incorporated in Washington in 1972 after several of the former pilots, who met occasionally, decided to form an organization to encourage black youths to enter aviation. They took the name Tuskegee Airmen after the Alabama college where the Army, bowing to pressure from civil rights groups and instructions from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, grudgingly implemented a program in 1941 to train black aviators. The organization has 45 chapters across the country, said Bill Broadwater of Upper Marlboro, a past president of the East Coast chapter, based in the District.
The charter members, in an effort to demonstrate the importance of the support personnel who worked with them, opened membership to anyone who served in the flight program from its inception until the doors closed in 1948. The organization later expanded to include other military personnel, relatives of airmen and associate members with no military affiliation.
"Everyone always wants to make such a big deal about the pilots, but for every pilot, there were 10 people who worked on the ground," said McGee, who flew 136 missions, almost three times the number flown by most white pilots in World War II. "We couldn't have achieved the success we did without them."
Among the favorite stories recited last week was the tale of the Great Train Robbery of March 23, 1945, when mechanics assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group -- which included the all-black 99th, 100th, 301st and 302nd Fighter squadrons -- were equipping the trademark P-51 Mustangs for an escort mission for bombers attacking Berlin. Mechanics discovered shortly before the mission that the fuel tanks on the P-51s weren't big enough to make the round trip from Italy.
The mechanics, Tuskegee Airmen said, then heard about a shipment of larger fuel tanks six hours away.
"The train was en route to another base to deliver the tanks, and they drove to it and literally blocked it," Broadwater said. "This was without authorization, of course. They took the tanks and then even modified the airplanes, by the way, to accommodate them. And by 5 or 6 in the morning, they had a majority of the planes modified and equipped and ready to go."
On that mission, the airmen destroyed three German Me262 fighters, the feared Messerschmitts, one of the first jet planes produced. One of the pilots credited with shooting down one of the jets that day, Roscoe C. Brown Jr. of New York, was a crowd favorite at the convention.
The aviators also recalled the discrimination they faced in their effort to fight for their country. McGee was a 19-year-old minister's son and a sophomore at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1942 when he learned that the Army was recruiting black men interested in becoming pilots.
He had been concerned that he might be drafted and sent into the infantry, so joining the Tuskegee program gave him an opportunity to serve and exercise some control over his destiny. He remembered having to change his seat on the train when it crossed the Mason- Dixon line headed south. He also recalled the confusion he felt when he learned that the Army did not welcome integration.
Even so, he and others persevered. "I was just glad for the opportunity to serve because I've always felt that we should get the chance to be measured by our abilities rather than the happenstance of birth," McGee said.
Of the 992 black pilots who graduated from the training program, nearly half eventually went into combat. They never lost a plane they were assigned to escort, but they lost several from their ranks during training and overseas, Broadwater said.
For years, they were known simply as "the black pilots from World War II" or "the black pilots from Tuskegee." While white military personnel returned home to tickertape parades and accolades, they returned to prejudice and few opportunities.
Now, as their numbers dwindle, the accolades that eluded them when they returned home from the war are pouring in.
They have been honored by presidents and feted by legislators. In July, they were celebrated at a luncheon by senators who have proposed issuing a gold medal in their honor.
As they watch their numbers decline, they get some solace in knowing that more black youngsters are choosing aerospace careers.
They are proud the world finally knows that 14 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, they walked into Tuskegee Institute and began training to save American lives.