John Roach, Tuskegee Airman, USAF Colonel

John Roach (1925-2005) was the president of the New England Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen Association when I met him in 1993. He and other local Tuskegee Airmen presented their stories and a video for our Black History Month program at three Honeywell offices and three schools near our offices. I introduced their presentations. John gave a very impressive talk. He talked about the Tuskegee Airmen and his experiences. Here are my memories of his story.

When John graduated from high school as a top student and athlete, during World War II, he learned that the Army Air Corps had started an aviation training program for black soldiers. He tried to take the pilot’s application test at many Boston area recruiting offices but was always turned down until he found one office where a recruiter let John take the test. He passed the test and was to enter the training program when he joined the Army, but there were paperwork and organizational delays. By persevering he joined what was eventually called The Tuskegee Airmen.

Some people expected this training program to fail, with racial prejudice about intelligence and that blacks could have sickle cell anemia, which would impair their breathing at high altitudes.

After training to fly B-25 bombers, John was assigned to a squadron in the U.S. when the war ended. When he was released from the Army, he applied to be an airline pilot at various airlines. At one airline, the chief pilot told him that if he hired John, the other pilots would go on strike. John instead went to college and earned an aeronautical engineering degree. John flew Air Force fighter jets and transport planes in Korea and Vietnam. He told me his favorite plane was the P-51 Mustang. He retired from the USAF as a colonel in 1969.

He next had a long career in the FAA. At one point, he was a check pilot for airline pilots and happened to give a check ride for the chief pilot who had rejected John’s application. John said the pilot was nervous but was a good pilot and passed his check ride.

When a Delta Airline Flight 723 DC-9 crashed on landing at Boston’s Logan Airport in 1973, John was the deputy regional director of the FAA’s New England regional office. He was the ranking local FAA person in the investigation. He told me that the pilots were never on the ILS glideslope. The aircraft hit the seawall short of the runway. No one was monitoring their altitude. They obviously thought they would descend below the cloud layer for a visual landing, but the weather was rapidly deteriorating.

My notes: The flight director had been set to G/A (Go Around) mode instead of APP (Approach). In G/A mode, the ILS guidance is not displayed. The pilots had been Northeast pilots prior to the merger with Delta. The Flight directors used by Northeast had the G/A position where the Delta switch had the APP setting. The approach controller had to guide another aircraft he was just handed to avoid a traffic conflict. The Delta flight had a 45-degree intercept to the localizer rather than the standard 30-degree angle and the aircraft was above the glideslope instead of the standard level flight below the glideslope until glideslope intercept. No one called out the altitudes on descent. With so many discrepancies, they should have declared a missed approach. 

Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. was the commander of the Tuskegee Airmen and the first African-American general in the Air Force. When I first met John, he talked about how George Lukas was planning to make a movie about them. There were issues about the Tuskegee Airmen approving the script. The HBO “Tuskegee Airmen” TV movie was made first with Cuba Gooding Jr. as one of the pilots in training. Years later the originally planned movie, “Red Tails”, was made, and Cuba Gooding Jr. was an officer.

When the Aero Club of New England awarded Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. their Presidential Award, John called me and asked if I would like to attend the luncheon at Boston’s Pier 4 restaurant. I attended the event, but Benjamin O. Davis was ill and did not travel from Washington D.C. to Boston. Instead he gave a video-taped speech. He recorded his talk in one flawless take. John received the Presidential award in 2003.

John’s career shows how someone can be very successful by being the best a person can be at every step along the way and not give up but to conquer problems by having goals and taking the best options available.