Celebrating Robert Ashby

Robert “Bob” Ashby was a trailblazer, overcoming racism and adversity to serve as a member of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen and become the only Tuskegee Airman to fly as an airline pilot. Through his career in both the military and as an airline pilot, Ashby, a retired Air Line Pilots Association, Int’l member, empowered the next generation of Black aviators to follow in his footsteps.


At the age of 17, Ashby enlisted in the Army Air Corps Aviation Cadet program. A second lieutenant with the Tuskegee Class of 45-H, he was called to active service in August 1944 and later assigned to Post-World War II Japan as a member of the U.S. occupying forces. However, the Army was still segregated, and Ashby was rejected by two white flying units and transferred to a black company in the Quartermaster Department in Tokyo. In May 1949, his flying status was reinstated, and Ashby flew bomber combat missions in the Korean War before being relocated to England where he served as a B-47 Stratojet instructor.


By July 1965, Ashby retired after 21 years of military service, departing the armed forces as a U.S. Air Force lieutenant colonel. He began his commercial aviation career working as a flight operations instructor for United Airlines. During his tenure with United, he was part of the team that went to Boeing’s facilities near Seattle, Wash., to design the airline’s training program for the new B-747. 


In January 1973, Ashby moved to Frontier Airlines where he became the carrier’s first African American pilot. While with Frontier, he flew the Twin Otter, Convair 580, B-737, and MD-80, logging more than 20,000 flying hours before retiring in July 1986. 


Ashby and the other surviving Tuskegee Airmen were honored with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award given by the U.S. Congress, on March 29, 2007. The tribute was presented by President George W. Bush in a moment of national recognition. According to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, the medal recognized their “unique military record that inspired revolutionary reform in the armed forces.”


Throughout his life, Robert Ashby overcame barriers to continue building a career on the flight deck. He opened doors and serves as an inspiration for future generations of aviators. 

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