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How this Bluffton resident got to USAF Thunderbirds cockpits from Ridgeland fields

'That's flak': Gen. Lloyd 'Fig' Newton on his first combat mission over Vietnam

In addition to being the first African American member of the Air Force Thunderbirds flying team, retired Gen. Lloyd 'Fig' Newton flew the F-4 Phantom in Vietnam. Here, he recounts, on Feb. 18, 2017, his first combat mission in 1968.
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In addition to being the first African American member of the Air Force Thunderbirds flying team, retired Gen. Lloyd 'Fig' Newton flew the F-4 Phantom in Vietnam. Here, he recounts, on Feb. 18, 2017, his first combat mission in 1968.

They’d just dropped their bombs and pulled their jet off the target when the call came over the radio.

It was the Thunderbirds — the U.S. Air Force’s stunt squadron — they were told, and the elite unit was trying to reach then-Capt. Lloyd “Fig” Newton.

Newton sat in the backseat of the twin-engine F-4D Phantom, a giant camouflage arrowhead knifing through the sky at 400 mph over the Arizona desert. He was an instructor pilot then, in 1974. And he was in no hurry to call off the day’s training runs on the bomb and gun range.

“I said (to the student pilot): ‘I’ve gotten this call a few times,’ Newton, a Ridgeland native, said Wednesday, recalling the training mission. “ ‘I don’t think there’s any real need for us to rush back in.’ 

So, he and his student dropped the rest of their 25-pound dummy bombs, fired their 20-mm cannon shells and returned to Luke Air Force Base near Phoenix.

After landing, Newton went to the squadron office, where the phone rang.

It was the leader of the Thunderbirds offering a spot in the squadron to Newton — who would be the unit’s first African-American pilot, and who would later find himself in the cockpits of some of the country’s most lethal and classified jets.

“The whole world changed,” Newton, 74, who now splits his time between Tampa and Bluffton, said of the phone call. “Right there before my eyes.”

‘A path to the future’

As a child in Ridgeland in the segregated South, Newton would see planes overhead and think that maybe — maybe — he’d one day ride in one.

“There wasn’t the thought that I’d get to pilot an airplane,” he said. “That just was not in the realm of thoughts of an African-American kid out there on the farm.”

His parents were sharecroppers. His mother attended school through the sixth grade; his father had a second-grade education. But they made sure he and his siblings were in school — the couple didn’t pull their kids out of class in September, when there was a late cotton crop, or during the spring planting season.

On Sunday, during a program at Ridgeland’s First Euhaw Baptist Church, Newton told the congregation how his father taught him to do things right the first time — if son was plowing a field with crooked rows, father would make him start over. Tough to straighten out a crooked row, Newton said, drawing some chuckles.

As an upperclassman at the old Jasper County High School, an Air Force recruiter caught his attention. Newton had always been drawn to military service — he and his father would sometimes pick up soldiers hitchhiking on U.S. 17, and he admired his cousin Lee, a tall Army veteran. The Air Force, established in 1947, was the newest service branch, Newton recalled, “a path to the future.”

He planned to enlist out of high school.

His math teacher, the late Foch Shanklin, had a different idea.

Go to college, get your degree, Shanklin told the teenager one day during recess. That way you have options. You can still enlist — or join the Air Force as an officer.

South Carolina engineering schools such as Clemson weren’t accepting African-American students when Newton began his college search, so he found his way to Tennessee State University.

The school had an Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps program — and an aviation curriculum.

He started flying.

‘If I fail ... ’

In 1964, Newton, a college sophomore, first saw the Thunderbirds.

The squadron was flying sleek, silver F-100 Super Sabres with red, white and blue trim when they flashed by him and the others watching the demonstration at Sewart Air Force Base.

“Man, they were doing these extraordinary things with the airplanes,” Newton said. “And they landed and taxied their airplanes in, all in formation, pulled up in front of the crowd, opened the canopies. These guys got out in these gorgeous-looking uniforms, and I said, ‘Now when I grow up, I want to be one of those.’ 

There was just one other African-American trainee in Newton’s 1966 flight school class at Williams Air Force Base in Arizona. There was pressure to succeed for his family, his school — and for himself.

“If I fail, the world just says, ‘Uh-huh, I knew it: you guys just can’t hack it — you can’t hack it because you’re black,’ ” Newton said.

There was an unwritten rule in the 12-month flight training program that if you failed three exams, you were out.

Newton failed two in his first four months.

And there was no guarantee he’d even be assigned jet fighters — a necessary first step for a prospective Thunderbirds pilot.

‘Those very telling moments’

As graduation neared, Newton gained more confidence in the classroom and in the air.

A friend he’d made, a white man from Mississippi, said he wished he could take Newton to see his hometown — though he knew he couldn’t.

“Between him and me,” Newton said, “it was just one of those very telling moments about what was happening in our country ... .”

Newton was assigned to fighters — F-4 Phantoms — and after he qualified on the aircraft, he prepared to deploy to Vietnam. He was in San Francisco when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968 — hours before he was to ship off to Southeast Asia.

Later that night he found himself sitting alone on a bus, asking himself whether he should still go to Vietnam.

“Very deep soul searching,” he said. “Struggling. And again, there wasn’t anybody else I could talk to about this — it’s just me.”

He flew 269 missions as a “backseater” during the war, according to his Air Force biography. More a quarter of those were over North Vietnam.

Based in the Philippines a few years later, he helped facilitate discussions on race relations as military installations began feeling the tensions of the 1960s and 1970s.

‘The task at hand’

Being an instructor pilot at Luke Air Force Base was the next best thing to flying with the Thunderbirds.

So, on that day over the Arizona desert in 1974, Newton was happy as he guided his student pilot through the gun and bomb range in the F-4D.

Yes, he got excited when the call came over the radio saying the Thunderbirds were looking for him.

But he didn’t get his hopes up. He’d tried out for and been rejected by the elite squadron twice before.

The student in the front seat of Newton’s Phantom that day was Chuck DeBellevue, who would eventually retire as a colonel and, at that time, was already an ace as a “backseater,” having helped shoot down five North Vietnamese MiG fighters over Southeast Asia. Like Newton had before him, DeBellevue was transitioning to the F-4’s “front seat” — the pilot’s seat.

“Fighter pilots are very focused,” DeBellevue said when asked what he remembered about that day. “They focus on the task at hand.”

Newton stayed with the mission, he said.

Before his retirement in 2000, Newton accumulated more than 4,000 flight hours in, among others, F-4s, F-15 Eagles, F-16 Fighting Falcons and the F-117 Nighthawk — the stealth fighter. He oversaw DeBellevue’s retirement ceremony. And, of course, he flew with the Thunderbirds for several years.

One of his favorite jobs with the stunt team was the narrator role, his first with the unit.

During performances he was on the ground, describing the maneuvers the jets made overhead.

He would be the first to arrive at a performance site, the first to interact with the public — he was people’s first impression of the squadron.

He was the face of the Thunderbirds.

Wade Livingston: 843-706-8153, @WadeGLivingston

Fighter pilot, instructor ... educator

Lloyd “Fig” Newton is on the steering committee for Polaris Tech, what could become the second charter school in Jasper County.

The school will offer a hands-on, project-oriented curriculum to help train middle- and high-school students for careers in the area’s growing industries, such as aviation and the future Jasper Ocean Terminal.

If approved, Polaris Tech would open in 2018-19 with about 125 students in grades six through 10.