He Helped Make Sure The Sky Was The Limit

By Steve Kelley
Updated: February 11, 2007

SEATTLE — In the early hours of summer days so warm and humid their clothes stuck to them like a second skin, George Hickman and his father would walk into the fields near St. Louis’ Lambert Field and fly model airplanes.

Head tilted back. Mouth opened wide in amazement. Eyes squinting into the sun, Hickman, as serious and intense as an air-traffic controller, followed the lazy flight of his planes.

He would launch them in the valley, near the airport and watch them climb, 200 feet into the air, while his father ran up the hills, waiting until the planes ran out of gas and glided, riding the Missouri thermals, to their soft landings.

Even now, some 70 years later, Hickman, who has worked with the University of Washington’s sports events staff for 40 years, remembers these days as the finest he ever spent with his dad.

For as long as he can remember, flying seemed second nature to Hickman. The magic of flight mesmerized him. The science of it fascinated him.

Flying felt liberating. It didn’t know color. It didn’t know race. Everyone who wanted to, Hickman believed, could fly.

He was 11 years old when he knew he wanted to be a pilot. In the 1930s, he saved the pennies he made from his newspaper route and the tops from his cereal boxes and sent away for model-airplane kits.

He started with planes that used rubber bands for propulsion, before eventually building aircraft with two-stroke gas engines.

He built planes that could dive, re-enacting the dogfights he’d seen on movie reels. He bought books on aerodynamics, learning about drag and lift and all of the fundamentals of flight.

“Someday,” he often told himself, “I’m going to be a pilot.”

Hickman was in high school when Hitler began marching through Europe. Like most kids his age, he wanted to fight the Germans.

But he was black, and before he could fight for his country, he had to fight against his country for his right to go to war. As much as he loved his country, he discovered his country didn’t love him back.

The War Department didn’t allow African-American pilots. It believed black men couldn’t fly.

The white men running the War Department never had taken the time to meet or understand George Hickman and so many other young black men, who shared the same passion for flying as the white pilots.

They weren’t on the hills outside St. Louis, watching a young boy’s dreams take seed. They weren’t inside Sumner High School when Hickman and his friends talked excitedly about flying and fighting against the Luftwaffe.

It’s almost unthinkable, more than 60 years later, to imagine a racism that was institutionalized.

The push to allow black pilots inexorably continued with the NAACP and in many of the nation’s black newspapers. The Pittsburgh Courier and Chicago Defender were among the most relentless, railing against the War Department’s ignorance in column after column.

The movement couldn’t be stopped, and in 1939, in an effort to quickly and efficiently train as many pilots as possible — “to “Fill the sky with pilots” — the Civilian Pilot Training Program was established. One of its training centers was Tuskegee Institute, a black university founded by Booker T. Washington.

Eventually a black unit was formed at Tuskegee.

“It just took time for the educated and brilliant people to get their opportunity,” said Hickman, who after the war worked for Boeing for 29 years. “It was just an evolutionary process.”

Tuskegee opened the hangar and allowed black pilots the chance to fly in World War II.

“From the very beginning, they were expected to fail — not only by bigoted civilians, but also by the War Department, the generals of the Army Air Corps, and by their fellow white pilots,” Lynn Homan and Thomas Reilly wrote in their book “Black Knights, The Story of the Tuskegee Airmen.”

Six weeks after graduating from high school, Hickman enlisted in the Army and eventually became part of the historic Tuskegee Airmen, the first all-black 99th Fighter Squadron.

“We heard all of that stuff about how we couldn’t fly before we ever even got into the program,” Hickman, now 82, said. “But when we got into the program we already knew we could fly.

“There was just a feeling that we had to open up the doors and get the troops overseas. We were trying to break down every door, every barrier we could break down. And when [Charles] Hall shot down the first Nazi plane [July 1943] that really opened doors.”

I’ve known George for more than 20 years. I consider him a friend. He works the press box at University of Washington and Seahawks football games. He also works all of the other Huskies events.

He is a kind and gentle man, the picture of serenity in press boxes usually crackling with anxiety.

Hickman has seen and experienced all of the ugliness of racism in this country. His grandmother, Cora Scales, was the daughter of a slave master from Kirkland, Tenn. He has ridden in the worst cars on segregated trains. He has heard every epithet ever uttered. But he loves this country and he was willing to die for it.

It’s a level of forgiveness that I believe is impossible to understand unless you are black.

“You love your country anyway because that’s what you were taught by your teachers,” said Hickman, a graduate of Bradley. “You love your country because this is where your family lives. This is your home.”

It is estimated that 992 pilots were trained at Tuskegee between 1940 and 1946, and 445 flew overseas. A victim of a complicated numbers game, Hickman never made it overseas with his buddies, but he was part of their history.

He flew with the 99th in Tuskegee. He helped break down a barrier and wake up a country. “I really love flying,” he said. “I like the combination of the technology and the skill that is involved. You have to use your wits and your brains. I’m in this airplane, by myself, and I’ve got it up to 5,000 feet and I’m doing all my maneuvers and I just feel like I’m in complete control.

“You see these beautiful cumulus clouds and blue sky. You look down and you see the green trees and cars looking like ants and you see a farm house and it’s such a spiritual feeling. Even if you know all the aerodynamics and all the theories of flight, there’s this feeling that you’re conquering all of that. You’re in charge.”

At Washington basketball games, Hickman usually works in the Northeast corner of Hec Ed. If you happen to see him in the next few weeks, thank him.

We all owe him that much. And more.