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A Veteran's Voice: Maj. General James T. Whitehead

First African American U2 pilot
A Veteran's Voice: James T. Whitehead
Posted at 12:01 PM, Oct 24, 2019
and last updated 2019-10-24 16:11:36-04

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — It's "A Veteran's Voice" that commands the highest level of dignity and respect. Not just for what he accomplished in a 40-year career with the military, but everything he and his family had to endure during a turbulent time in our nation's history.

Major General James T. Whitehead has lived in Bakersfield for the last 25 years, following an impressive military career. A journey that took him all over the world, and high above it, with plenty of turbulence along the way.

"I've always loved airplanes, since I was eight years old," said Jim Whitehead. So, when he turned 17, he joined the New Jersey Army National Guard. "I was standing on the corner with my buddies, who were talking about their brothers joining at the armory, and got to drive tanks," said Whitehead, "and they got paid to do it, so I said, why not?!"

That lasted one year, when he enrolled at the University of Illinois to pursue his dream of becoming a commercial airline pilot. Whitehead passed his professional pilots course and got his license when his 'flight' was grounded.

"A friend told me to check to see if an airline will hire you, so you don't waste anymore money," said Whitehead, "they said no, they aren't hiring any black pilots, so, I joined the Air Force."

And what a decision it turned out to be.

Whitehead graduated college and enlisted in the USAF. He finished flight school and wanted to fly a fighter jet. But what the military needed was pilots for larger aircraft.

"They needed guys to fly the big refueling tankers, KC-135 that were brand new," said Whitehead, "so, I said why not, I'd rather sit in the right seat than the back seat."

His crew flew on alert status for six years during the Cold War, refueling B-52 bombers that were flying 24 hours a day, from bases in the U.S. and overseas.

Whitehead would deploy to Vietnam and when he returned home in 1965, his career would climb to new heights. He volunteered for the U2 spy plane program and was accepted. He moved to Davis Monthan AFB in Tucson to being his training.

He was the first African American pilot to fly a U2 with missions over Cuba and other hot spots.

When he resigned his commission, he was finally hired to fly commercial aircraft, beginning a 20-year career with TWA airlines. He also rejoined the military in the Nebraska Air National Guard. It was then he rocketed through the ranks, eventually becoming a 2-star General in 1991, as the Asst. Director of the Air National Guard assigned to the Pentagon.

But all his success didn't come without sacrifice. Whitehead remembers many stops along the way, where his family was subjected to racism throughout the South and Midwest. He says the lack of overall support from the military during that time hurt the most, but he stayed strong thanks to the support of mentors and his father.

He moved to Bakersfield with his wife Sondra in 1993 and continued to serve his country in civilian life with activities that included the Community Advisory Board at CSUB and the Chairman of the Board for the Minter Field Air Museum.

Whitehead helped to improve the Air Museum by documenting Kern County's contribution to aviation that includes a U2 exhibit. One of the biggest secrets uncovered in 1999, when declassified documents revealed a U2 production facility on Norris Road in Oildale.

Now, Jim and Sondra are preparing to move one more time, back to Tucson where his super secret career began. A place where his life truly soared to new heights. A kid from New Jersey who left a street corner, for the stars.