Pioneering aviators visit Greenville

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 28, 2001

Mrs. Herbert Carter is one of those gracious southern ladies whose voice is soft, sweet and low.

Her gently rounded figure doesn't top out at much over five feet tall. When she smiles, which is often, the radiance she generates is memorable.

Her husband, Col. Herbert Carter, USAF (retired) is a slender, mustachioed gentleman with a dapper manner and equally engaging smile.

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Simply put, they make a very cute' couple.

The Carters were in Greenville recently for a dedication ceremony at the Butler Activity Center, followed by a meeting and luncheon for members of the Tuskegee Foundation.

The organization is dedicated to the preservation of historic old Tuskegee Army Airfield, home to WWII's famed "Tuskegee Airmen." Colonel Carter is one of approximately 13 surviving members of the original 33 pilots who formed the first all-black squadron, the 99th.

These were the brave young men who proved that coloreds' could and did serve their nation with distinction as pilots in wartime.

Their valiant efforts paved the way for the future integration of the armed services in the U.S.

But this story centers around another pilot

the other pilot in Carter's family.

In 1941, 17-year-old Tuskegee Institute student Mildred Nemmons decided she wanted to fly.

"I saw the advertisements for the new Civilian Pilot Training Program at Tuskegee and I got, well excited.

I saw myself as a black Amelia Earhart.

I'd never flown in my life, didn't even know any pilots

but the idea of it sure piqued my interest," Mildred Nemmons Carter says.

"They weren't actively seeking out females for the programbut, then again, they weren't saying we couldn't apply either, so I did," she adds with a grin.

Unfortunately, applicants had to be 18 to be accepted into the program. So the young woman was forced to patiently wait on the arrival of her next birthday.

She was thrilled upon receiving notice of her acceptance into the program.

Mildred Nemmons, the girl who'd never flown, took to airplanes like a duck to water.

"The first time I went up in a plane was so thrilling, an absolutely beautiful experience.

"I think some people have an innate fear of flying, but I never experienced anything like that.

I always had confidence in my instructor and my aircraft…when you pushed the throttle forward, gained speed and felt the plane lift off the ground, it was always a fantastic experience," she recalls.

The business major juggled her full-time business studies with ground school and flying lessons.

Within a few months, the young woman had earned her pilot's license and was flying at every opportunity.

The call went out for female pilots to serve in the newly formed WASP (Women's Airforce Service Pilot) program.

Women who qualified were promised they would be trained in "the Army way" in all facets of military aviation, including ferrying aircraft between bases, towing targets, testing planes and flying night tracking and cargo missionseven training male pilots.

It sounded like a perfect opportunity for a young pilot who hoped to make a career of her new love.

"Flying time was expensive and I didn't come from a wealthy family; I could only fly when I saved up.

So I counted on being able to get that job.

It meant I'd be able to afford to continue my flying and help my country, too," she comments.

When the bad news arrived,

Mildred was devastated.

"I was told they didn't accept colored women as applicants.

It was the end of my aspirations to be a career pilot," she recalls with a sigh.

But it wasn't the end of flying for the future Mrs. Carter, she says. "I still flew as often as I could.

My instructor in Tuskegee, Keith Anderson, also owned his own plane and he was good about giving me flying time in the cockpit."

Even after her marriage to fellow Tuskegee student Herbert Carter and many subsequent moves as an Air Force spouse, she says every trip back to Tuskegee was another opportunity to fly "just for the pure joy of it."

"It wasn't to be my career but it did become my much-loved hobby," she explains.

During Col. Carter's 25-plus years serving in the Air Force, his wife looked forward to his safe return from each mission.

She also craved the stories he would share upon his return.

"Listening to Herbert talk about his flights was the absolutely next best thing to being there at the controls myself," Mrs. Carter says.

Colonel and Mrs. Carter returned to their alma mater in 1965 when the colonel was assigned to teach aerospace studies at the institute. "That was his last assignment and we decided to settle there again…my mother was still living at that time and I wanted to be near her," Mrs. Carter explains.

The couple, married just shy of 60 years ("though my Herbert is far too handsome and young-looking to have been married THAT long"), still enjoys traveling by plane for pleasure and to attend the annual meetings of the National Organization of Tuskegee Airmen held each August in different cities across the nation.

"It's sad to say, but our numbers are dwindling.

We lose someone every year.

The average age is 80-plus years," Mrs. Carter remarks wistfully.

She enjoys spending time with her three children and five grandchildren and is active as a VIP' (Visitor in the Park Service) volunteer at the Carver Museum in Tuskegee.

Carter admits to frequent questions of "what if?" over the decades, and still experiences occasional twinges of jealousy.

"I saw a brief part of a documentary recently about a woman fighter pilot.

I looked at her in that plane and thought, Oh, why couldn't that have been ME?'

Still, I know you can't go back in life," she says with a rueful shake of her head and a small sigh.

Still, there are the vivid memories.

Over 50 years ago, student pilot Mildred Nemmons arrived back at a Tuskegee hangar.

She'd barely climbed out of her plane when a program official came hurrying over.

"Mildred, there's someone here who's anxious to meet you."

The young aviatrix quickly dusted herself off and went to meet the mysterious visitor.

"I couldn't believe my eyes.

It was Eleanor Roosevelt, the President's wife.

She had come down to Tuskegee to go flying with one of our black pilots.

Mrs. Roosevelt wanted to show America our people were capable of doing the job.

"Just by coincidence I'd been flying that day and got to meet her-what a thrill that was for me," Mrs. Carter remembers, a beatific smile lighting up her face.

One of the Carter grandsons is dreaming of his own flights into the wild blue yonder.

"He's 12 years old and after his first lesson he wanted to go solo. I told him, Whoa, you can't do it that quickly," Mrs. Carter laughed.

She encourages the young men and women of today to follow their own dreams and take advantage of the greater opportunities now available to women and minorities.

Like the famous athletic shoe ad, Mildred Nemmons Carter believes you should "just do it."