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Elm City native Rufus Winstead Jr. was among Air Force personnel honored this month for a historic first flight of an all African-American crew to ferry a C-5A Galaxy from Dover Air Force Base to the Middle East and back in 1986.
Winstead, 70 and a 1967 graduate of Frederick Douglass High School, was among 18 Air Force veterans honored at the base in Dover, Delaware.
Speaking by telephone from Ontario, Canada, Winstead said The Afro-American Experience — International Connection flight received widespread press at the time.
The C-5A was then the largest airplane in the world.
“I was an instructor flight engineer,” Winstead said. “The flight engineer is the guy who takes care of all of the mechanical systems for the airplane, fuel, environmental control, engines and all of that stuff. But an instructor flight engineer trains younger people to take over that position and monitors the gauges and fuel. I was air-refueling qualified, so when we had to do aerial refueling, I had to take over the aerial fueling part.”
The massive plane is a workhorse, flying equipment and personnel to points all over the world.
“Whenever we move cargo, it is a mission-essential thing,” Winstead said. “You need food in Germany. You need cargo and weapons down in Incirlik. That stuff has to get there on time for the people to use it. You can’t have troops out in the field who need supplies, ammunition, fuel and stuff like that.
“Someone has to bring that stuff to them, and that is the primary mission of the Air Force because we are quick. We can get stuff over there. If it’s something that is a slow priority, we can put it on a ship, but if there is a need to have items, we have to fly it over there,” he said. “And that’s the purpose of having an airplane capable of refueling because you can put cargo on at Dover and fly it all the way out to the troops, and within 16 hours they can have that cargo, fuel, weapons, ammunitions at their ready.”
MISSION WAS 11,000 AIR MILES
The historic flight was made with African-American personnel from multiple units at Dover.
“We generated out of the 3rd Military Airlift Squadron, the base was the 436 Military Airlift Wing. What we did with the mission is we drew from people who were all over the base and all the squadrons,” Winstead said. “It was a multitude of different positions on base that was on that mission to show that the vast places that we had black crew members.”
Winstead already had 6,500 hours of flying time at the time of the mission.
“Some of the pilots had like 15,000 hours. A couple of the engineers had 10,000 hours, so we were well qualified,” Winstead recalled. “The biggest thing we were trying to do was to point out for the black history flight, not that we were all black, but to show minority members that they can go in the military and make their lives what they want to make of them. You just have to get qualified, go to school and get things done. The biggest thing was to give them hope that they can have the opportunity to get into the military and do whatever they want to do.”
The mission was more than 11,000 air miles long adding all of the legs together.
“It takes us eight and a half hours to leave Dover and to get to Europe. That is where one of the crew rest stops was. We would go there and sleep for eight hours,” Winstead said. “The next morning they gave us a six-hour bus ride down to Ramstein (Air Base in Germany). Once we got to Ramstein, we had to take up a mission and fly down to Incirlik, Turkey, and that’s 13 hours, so we go to sleep in Incirlik, and then go back to Rhein-Main (Air Base in Germany), which is 10 and a half hours, and then we come back to Europe and nine hours back to the United States.”
Winstead is a Vietnam veteran who served a total of 24 years in the Air Force from 1968 until 1992, ending his career as a master sergeant.
When he first arrived at Dover in 1978, there weren’t enough black crewmen to fill a flight crew for such a flight.
“Later on we grew and grew and grew and finally got enough crew members to complete the crew list for the flight,” Winstead said. “So we said ‘Well, why can’t we just fly an airplane around the world and just show people that we have enough crew members?” And that was the primary purpose of the mission.”
Winstead, who now calls Middletown, Delaware, home, said he still has many relatives in Wilson County, mostly Winsteads and Taylors.
“I was a poor little boy in Elm City,” Winstead said. “The family house is still there now. It’s kind of rundown now. I did the tobacco thing and working in the fields and stuff like that, but when I got out of high school, I just decided I wanted to do something different.”
An Air Force recruiter told him he had the grades and test scores to enlist.
“I decided to go into the military to see some of the world and because of the military, I have seen almost all of the world from Russia all of the way back down,” Winstead said. “I have seen how other people live. I have met different people of different nationalities. I would never had gotten that if I had stayed in Wilson.”
Winstead would like young people to know that no matter what stands in your way, there is opportunity out there.
“The biggest thing with opportunities is you have to be prepared to grab them when they come along,” Winstead said. “You have got to go to school. You have got to get the training. You have the get the experience, so when the opportunity comes along, you can step right into that spot without dragging along.
“We always want people to know that you can do almost anything you want to do as long as you have got your mind to do it and you have got the education and experience to do it,” he said. “Even from a little town like Elm City going to Frederick Douglass, you can get the experience and go do whatever your future wants you to do. With God’s help and our endurance and our fortitude, we can go places.”