First Lieutenant Calvin Spann, one of the original Tuskegee airmen serving in World War II, died Sunday at the age of 90.
Spann, born in Rutherford, New Jersey, was inspired to fly at a young age by the aviation comic book strip, Smilin’ Jack.
Spann received his wings from the Tuskegee Flight School and was part of the graduating class of 44G. Upon completing his training, he joined hundreds of other Black men that would comprise the Tuskegee Airmen.
The Tuskegee Airmen were an all Black flying unit established in 1940, as a result of Public Law 18, which established civilian pilot training programs at 166 colleges and universities across the country. This law would eventually lead to the expansion of the Army Air Corps.
Spann was a member of the 100th Fighter Squadron, part of the 332nd Fighter Group and piloted the fast and powerful P-51 Mustang. He flew 26 combat missions over Nazi Germany. One of the missions was the longest bomber escort mission of the 15th Air Force, a 1,600-mile round trip mission on March 24, 1945 from Ramitelli, Italy to Berlin, Germany to destroy the Daimler-Benz manufacturing plant.
Despite enduring discrimination when trying to enter pilot programs, Spann said that he was proud to eventually see the change in attitude that came about regarding the Tuskegee Airman.
“When we met some of the bomber crews in town, they gave us all the praise in the world. ‘You’re the Red Tails and we want you guys to escort us,’” Spann said in a video sponsored by American Airlines. “That’s a big change from when I was in training.”
According to Stripes.com, Spann left active duty in 1946 and after returning to America, he never flew again. Spann was enlisted in the Air Force Reserves until 1961 but was denied the opportunity to maintain his flying hours to keep his pilot’s license.
Spann’s wife Gwenelle Johnson told elementary school students during a Black History Month celebration that her husband said he couldn’t fly anymore. Every time he would go down to get a plane from the Teterboro, New Jersey airport, they would tell him that there were no more planes available, which he knew was not true.
The celebrated airman was inducted into the New Jersey Aviation Hall of Fame in 2006. That same year, the Tuskegee Airmen received the Congressional Medal of Honor.