By Tawanda Kanhema
Ten days after the death of Nelson Mandela at the age of 95, five pilots from the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen Inc. took to the skies to pay tribute to the late South African president. (The group is a nonprofit dedicated to community service and honoring the Tuskegee Airmen, the all-black Army Air Force units that gained fame in World War II aerial combat.)
The local pilots flew over the Oakland Coliseum, where Mandela addressed a capacity crowd in 1990.
Air traffic control at the Hayward Executive Airport altered regular call signs for the five planes that participated in the memorial flight from Mandela 001 through Mandela 005.
“We are flying over a highly populated African-American community to let them know that we do honor and respect the people who have put their lives out there for us,” Ben Henderson, a former U.S. Air Force engineer and pilot said. “It is very important for young people to understand the sacrifices that have been made and to reflect on the life of Nelson Mandela.”
The first plane, flown by Capt. Sam Gaadi of Aerial Beacon, an aerial advertising operation, took off shortly after 2 p.m. from Hayward and headed north toward the Coliseum, where Mandela addressed his largest audience in the United States following his release from 27 years in South African prisons.
Gaadi, who flew a Cessna with a banner reading #Mandela27Years, said the event was a way of honoring Mandela for his fight for equality and acknowledging the San Francisco Bay Area community’s support of Mandela in the years leading to his release.
“We decided to combine our forces as pilots and businesses in the Bay Area and honor the legacy of President Mandela,” Gaadi said.
The flight coincided with other events to honor Mandela in San Francisco and in Oakland, which were among the first U.S. cities to introduce ordinances calling for the disinvestment of funds from U.S. companies that were doing business with South Africa’s apartheid regime.
“I never thought that I’d be able to honor someone through my flying,” said Dave Cunningham, president of the William “Bill” Campbell Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen Inc., who flew a Cherokee Warrior in the memorial flight. Cunningham, whose father was a pilot during World War II, joined the group as a commercial pilot.
From the Coliseum the pilots broke formation and conducted coordinated passes over the UC Berkeley campus and the Mandela Parkway, the West Oakland boulevard named for Mandela after the collapse of Cypress Freeway during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
The pass over the UC Berkeley campus, Gaadi said, was an acknowledgement of UC students’ anti-apartheid campaign. That effort eventually led the university to pull billions of dollars out of companies doing business with South Africa.