For the last several years I have been hearing reports of a former Black pilot who resides not too far from me. I finally had the opportunity to meet Lt. Col. Tony Marshall at the showing of the movie “Red Tails.” Over the months occasionally our paths would cross; an accomplished photographer, when my camera went on
strike, I would call him for back up photographs.
Lt. Col. Marshall was born and raised in Upper Marlboro in Maryland, growing up on a farm with parents who did not have the opportunity to finish school, but who were adamant that he would go to college. Marshall graduated from Frederick Douglas High School in 1964; the Vietnam War was beginning to really heat up and he did not want to go into the army. He began the pursuit of secondary education; he was told to attend local educational facilities, but one counselor advised him to leave the area, to look for scholarships. He did all of the above and received three scholarship offers. He wound up at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs; studies were a struggle, but he persevered. After her death he would learn that his mother had pulled strings to get him into the academy, a lady with a sixth grade education, but who worked in a house where she had the privilege to meet an elected official who would sponsor the young Marshall. That first year he wanted to see what was available; because of his eyesight he would end up in navigator training. Marshall is ready to share what has propelled him from farm boy to flyer, one being “Luck is being ready when opportunity knocks.”
After training, he was sent to McDill AFB in Florida to fly; there he would meet veterans who had been to Vietnam, they told him to change his mindset about the war and those who didn't come back.
Marshall was stationed at Udorn Airbase in Thailand for 18 months. Though not a risk-taker, he ended up paired with a pilot who liked to take chances; although they had a heart-to-heart talk, the pilot went in too low. Their mission was to mark places for the bombers to drop bombs. When their plane was hit, he parachuted first and went into total shock. He was surrounded by Vietnamese with AK-47’s, and he had an unloaded pistol. He was taken to Hanoi and quartered at the famous Hanoi Hilton holding facility. We hear torture tales that make us shudder, but Marshall says he was never tortured or hurt, although he awakened in an underground hole. He thought he would be shot, and was mad because no one could do anything to save him. He was captured July 3, 1972, and on August 12 his mother found out he was a prisoner of war. Marshall believes he was a novelty because of his race; they didn't see many Blacks. His biggest fear was losing his mind, but he managed to maintain his sanity; there were lots of things to think about. Marshall calls that time graduate training because he learned that both sides exaggerate, and as a sidebar he added that no one knows what they will do in those situations.
The war was winding down; he was released March 29, 1973. He stayed in the service, received his pilot’s license and retired in 1990. Those nine months that he was captive held another life lesson for Marshall: “Don't waste time; when you are late you are saying to the other person, your life is not important.”
When he retired from the Air Force Marshall was hired by United Airlines; there he was mentored by a Black pilot who told him to mentor Black kids. He would come out early, go into the waiting area, grab some kids and take them into the cockpit. He flew for United for 17 years, and logged 12,000 hours flying the DC-10, B-747, and A-320 aircraft out of Los Angeles. He heard about a guy in Compton whose business was giving helicopter rides; he met the Tuskegee airmen, sold his business and began to work with a young non-profit organization, the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP). That was the beginning of the Aviation Career Education Academy that operates out of Compton Airport. Marshall stated he didn’t even know there was an airport in Compton at the time. The kids just started showing up; one of the former students was hired as a pilot, one girl did a cross country flight. The group currently operates from two sites, Compton and Las Vegas. They have completed both camps this month; now Lt. Col. Marshall is looking to expand to the high desert; he was instrumental in Millionaire Mind Kids hosting an aviation summer camp earlier this summer.
The Colonel says that he is doing what he likes; he doesn’t believe in the victim mentality but getting the children early and getting them motivated. He will continue his regimen as long as he sees progress. He is an avid gardener, loves the small town atmosphere of Apple Valley, and considers it great that he gets paid to perform his hobby.
Colonel Marshall has amassed numerous military awards; he retired after 22 years with 480 hours of combat time, 3000 hours in the F-4 and 3,600 hours of total military flying time. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics, and a Master’s degree in Business Management. He volunteers as a mentor at the Lewis Center Academy of Academic Excellence in Apple Valley, and also serves as a mentor for the Millionaire Mind Kids in Victorville. He is the West Region Vice President for the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, a mentor and board of directors chair at Tomorrow's Aeronautical Museum, and a member of the Los Angeles chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen.
He took the advice of his mentor at United Airlines, Bill Norwood, and adheres strictly to the principles of reaching back to lift the children from mediocrity. Marshall resides in Apple Valley.
Words of wisdom from the man “who’s been there, done that”: Live your dream, never give up; take advantage of every opportunity that presents itself!