One of last original Tuskegee Airmen instructors dies at 96

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Milton Pitts Crenchaw, a flight instructor who trained the Tuskegee Airmen — the first African-Americans to fly combat airplanes in World War II — has died in Georgia. He was 96.

Crenchaw died Tuesday at Piedmont Henry Hospital near Atlanta after battling cardiovascular disease and pneumonia, said his daughter, Dolores Singleton.

A native of Little Rock, Arkansas, Crenchaw was among the last surviving instructors of the Tuskegee Airmen, Singleton said. He was among the original flight instructors in the program that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt wanted to train black pilots for war, she added.

"He began that whole flying experiment — I really think that's what it was because they didn't think it was going to work," Singleton said Wednesday. "For a black man to be able to fly, that's just like an astronaut now," she said.

The training at Tuskegee was the U.S. War Department's answer to a shortage of pilots, along with mechanics and other ground support personnel needed to maintain aircraft for battle, according to historical accounts from Tuskegee University and Tuskegee Airmen Inc., a national group that supports the airmen.

In an era when black military personnel were fighting segregation and being arrested at installations like Freeman Army Airfield in Indiana, the Tuskegee Airmen were integrating the U.S. war effort at the front lines.

"At the same time that black officers were incarcerated for resisting segregation at Freeman Field, for example, other black officers were earning Distinguished Flying Crosses and aerial victory credits by shooting down enemy airplanes in combat over Europe, while still other black cadets were learning to fly military airplanes," Daniel Haulman of the Air Force Historical Research Agency wrote in a 2015 chronology of the Tuskegee Airmen.

Crenchaw, who became a pilot while studying at the Tuskegee Institute in eastern Alabama, trained hundreds of pilots there in the 1940s, according to a biography by the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies.

"Crenchaw became a primary civilian flight instructor and eventually one of the two original supervising squadron commanders under Chief Pilot Charles A. Anderson," the biography states. "He and Charles Foxx were the first instructors for the first group of student pilot trainees between 1941 and 1946."

Later, Crenchaw helped establish an aviation program at Philander Smith College in Little Rock, according to the center's biography.

When the Hollywood film "Red Tails" was released in 2012, bringing the Tuskegee Airmen's story to a new generation, Crenchaw introduced the film to an audience at a Little Rock theater, Singleton said. He gave the moviegoers a first-person account of the history they were about to see on the big screen.

Though he received many accolades for his service to the nation and his contributions to aviation, Singleton said her father was always humble.

"He loved people and he loved the United States of America," Singleton said.