One of the few surviving planes used to train the Tuskegee Airmen at the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of African American History and Culture. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

The vintage, open-cockpit biplane hangs from the ceiling of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. It catches the eye, restored to its original design: blue body, yellow wings and red stripes on its tail.

The plane is a PT-13 Stearman with a proud history that was little known for years.

Air Force Capt. Matt Quy and his wife, Tina, purchased it on eBay in 2005 as a wreck. They worked diligently to get it into flying shape and planned to use it for thrill rides. But all that changed after they submitted its serial number to Air Force historians and its special heritage was revealed.

Their Stearman was used during World War II to train the first African American military pilots at a segregated flying school in Moton, Ala., near Tuskegee University. Known as the Tuskegee Airmen, the nearly 1,000 black pilots trained there from 1941 and to the mid-1940s, and in combat earned a reputation for protecting the bombers they escorted.

After learning of the plane’s history, the Quys (pronounced “Kwise”) traveled the country with it for 6½ years, christening it “The Spirit of Tuskegee” to honor the airmen.

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Paul Gardullo, a curator for the new African American museum, had been searching for such a plane when a colleague from the National Air and Space Museum told him about the Quys. He headed to an air show at Edwards Air Force Base, in Southern California, where the couple were showing their plane with two Tuskegee Airmen.

“There’s this little biplane . . . much smaller and more unassuming than many, many of the planes that are on the tarmac,” Gardullo recalled. There was a long line to see the plane, and the airmen were greeted like “rock stars,” he said.

Gardullo waited in the line, introduced himself to the Quys and told them the museum wanted to display the plane. They were reluctant, however, because they knew it might never be flown again. But they agreed, appreciating the museum’s ability to more broadly share the story of the Tuskegee Airmen.

For one last time, the young couple flew it across the country, along the way meeting with Tuskegee Airmen, dozens of whom have signed the baggage hatch.

“Just as we were flying, I kept looking out at these wings that I started rebuilding in the garage,” Matt Quy told a reporter after the plane landed at Moton Field, one of its final stops. His voice broke. “It’s exciting, but it is sad.”

Item: Plane flown by Tuskegee Airmen

Donor: Matt and Tina Quy

Museum exhibition: Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom: Era of Segregation, 1876-1968

Krissah Thompson