First African American Pilot
Becomes Four-Star General
WASHINGTON -- When he was a teenager, Air Force Gen. Lloyd W.
"Fig" Newton's father asked him and his brothers, "What's the
most important four-letter word in the English language?"
The boys scratched their heads in deep thought, toying with such words as
"No!" he said to all their answers.
"The word is 'know,' as in 'knowledge.' "
"He told us, the more you know, the better off you're going to
be," said Newton, 54, currently the Air Force's only African-American
four-star general. "And now, I invite all youngsters to 'know.'
"For an individual who only went through the second grade, my dad
was a very bright man with a very bright vision," Newton said.
"My mother only went through the sixth grade."
For the first time in history, the three military departments have
African-American four-star officers serving at the same time.
The other two are Gen. Johnnie E. Wilson commander of the Army Materiel
Command in Alexandria, VA.; and Adm. J. Paul Reason, commander of the Atlantic
Fleet in Norfolk, VA.
Newton, commander of the Air Education and Training Command at Randolph
AFB, TX, is responsible for the recruiting, training and education of all Air
Force personnel. His command includes the Air Force Recruiting Service, the
19th Air Force at Randolph, the 2nd Air Force at Kessler AFB, Mississippi and
the Air University at Maxwell AFB, AL. His
command consists of 13 bases and more than 43,000 active duty service members
and 14,000 civilian employees.
As a youngster, Newton often stood in the fields of the family farm in
Ridgeland, SC, watching airplanes flying overhead but not thinking about being a
pilot, he said. At that time,
military uniforms fascinated him more than airplanes.
"My second cousin was in the Army, and I always looked forward to
him coming home in his uniform," Newton reflected.
"I said, 'When I grow up, I really want to be like him.' "
His fascination with uniforms turned to airplanes at Tennessee State
University in Nashville. "They had an aviation program at Tennessee State; ROTC
was mandatory at that time," said Newton, who worked his way through
college on work-study programs. "The
advanced part of Air Force ROTC had some flying involved, so I changed my major
to aviation. I got flying as part
of my major curriculum as well as part of ROTC.
That's when I really got interested."
Graduating with a bachelor of science degree in aviation education, he
was commissioned as a distinguished graduate through the ROTC program in 1966.
Newton completed pilot training at Williams AFB, AZ in June 1967.
His interest in flying was also sparked in 1964 when he saw the Air Force
Thunderbirds aerial demonstration team perform during his junior year of
college. He said he became consumed
with a burning desire to be a Thunderbird.
At the time, the team had never had an African-American pilot.
That didn't deter Newton.
"When I came into the Air Force my goal was to become a Thunderbird
pilot," he said. Three tryouts
with two rejections didn't thwart his quest.
"Roughly ten years later, it happened.
In the fall of 1974, as it turned out, I was the first African-American
He held several positions in the Thunderbirds, including narrator, slot
pilot and right wingman.
Newton went on to become a command pilot with more than 4,000 flying
hours in the T-37, T-38, F-4, F-15, F-16, C-12 and F-117 stealth fighter.
Two of his brothers, Donald and Lester, also majored in aviation at
Tennessee State and became Air Force officers.
"We've all been in the flying business," Newton said.
"My youngest brother, Don, was a weapons controller on an AWACS
(Airborne Warning and Control System) aircraft.
He's a full colonel, a detachment commander at the University of
"Unfortunately, we lost Lester in an aircraft accident in
1985," Newton said. "He wasn't a combat pilot, but he flew C-130's in and
out of Vietnam."
Newton left for Vietnam on April 4, 1968, the day Martin Luther King, Jr.
was assassinated. He said he was
confused about going because "I wasn't sure whether the war was in Vietnam
or here in America."
Racial strife abounded across the nation while Newton was fighting the
air war in Southeast Asia. He said
flying combat missions helped dispel negatives others tried to attach to black
Americans. He flew 269 combat mission from Da Nang Air Base, South
Vietnam, including 79 missions over North Vietnam.
"We in the military ... were no different from American
society," he said. "What was going on in society was going on in the U.S.
Air Force. ... The leadership
buried its head in the sand.
"They said, 'We don't have those problems in the U.S. Air Force,
which was obviously wrong." And
before the war ended, the Air Force was forced to admit having racial problems
because they were manifested by demonstrations and riots on bases, Newton noted.
"That's when we confronted the problems head-on, and I'm proud to
say the Air Force took a leadership role in solving racial problems in the
military," he said.
He later decided that going to Vietnam had been the right decision.
"It taught me many things. As
a young second lieutenant, I grew up very quickly," Newton noted.
"There was also a true realization that America is one of the
greatest nations on Earth, and I was as much a part of America as anybody
That insight stimulated a desire to return home and enjoy "all the
freedoms and opportunities America should offer to all of its citizens."
He also vowed to help others recognize and take advantage of those
freedoms and opportunities.
"Being in combat is certainly a difficult time," the general
said. "There were missions I
was scared on, but that's combat, and the things that help mature a young
American, no matter who you are."
Newton today likes speaking to groups of youngsters and encouraging them
to get an education.
"My point to youngsters is, they can grow to be anything and anybody
their capabilities will allow them to be," he said.
"What's important to them is to continue to develop themselves to
reach the summit they're trying to get to.
The opportunities are out there. That
doesn't mean it's going to be easy, it doesn't mean that someone won't try to
stand in their way. They have to
learn how to negotiate themselves around those problems."
He said education is the key to any door they're trying to open.
"That's the one medium that helps to level the playing field,"
said Newton, holder of a master's degree in public administration.
The general also pointed out that military veterans play a pivotal role
in America's success as a nation.
"Whether you're looking
in local government, local organizations, the state and federal level, you'll
find veterans scattered throughout making great contributions to their
communities and ultimately to the nation," he said.
Many of them are engaged with youngsters across the nation and trying to
be their role models.
"I certainly encourage them to continue doing that," Newton
said. "Veterans certainly have
the leadership skills, the commitment and the traditional values we desire in
the nation. The more we contribute during the early ages of those
youngsters, the less we'll have to do to help to take care of them later."
He said values taught by his parents and learned on the family's small
farm were catalysts to his success in adult life.
"I grew up in a segregated environment with reference to school and
other kinds of public facilities," Newton said.
"It's quite different now. We
were in segregated schools under the concept of separate but equal.
We certainly know that was not the case, unfortunately.
Our schools didn't have the same kind of quality and equipment as white
schools. It was separate, but not
Living under a cloud of discrimination and a lack of jobs available for
African Americans, his parents strived to instill traditional and important
values American citizens should have, he said:
respect for others, treat others as you'd like to be treated, don't steal
or lie, and always work hard.
"The values they taught us on that little farm, in that little town,
have paid big dividends for me over the years, and they're still doing that for
me today," the general noted.
His parents also always stressed the value of education, Newton said.
"Their vision of education was a bit shorter than we have
today," he said. "Their
goal was to ensure that every one of us got through high school.
Fortunately, they were able to achieve that and more;
all of us made it through high school and several of us made it through
college." The general has a
sister and five living brothers.
Today, Newton is the pride of Ridgeland and Jasper County and
affectionately called "Ridgeland's highest flying son."
A book, "Flying High with General Lloyd Newton" is displayed in
the county's museum, along with mementos of his career.
The town and county honored him last October as grand marshall of
their annual Gopher Hill Festival. He
and his wife, the former Elouise M. Morning of St. Petersburg, FL., rode in a
large, white, horse-drawn carriage driven by a driver decked out in a white
The nickname "Fig" was bestowed on the general during his
senior year of college by a classmate, Howard Baugh, the son of the ROTC
detachment commander at Tennessee State.
"He started calling me 'Fig' because my last name is Newton,"
the general said. When he and his
classmate went on active duty for pilot training, his friends always introduced
him as "Fig." "It
just caught on," he said, "and in Vietnam, I started wearing it on my
"Of course, I've eaten a lot of Fig Newtons, too," he said with
American Forces Press
by: Rudi Williams