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Robert Ashby (1926–2021), Tuskegee Airman who was the first Black pilot for Frontier Airlines

by Linnea Crowther

Robert Ashby was a U.S. Air Force veteran who served as a Tuskegee Airman during World War II before becoming the first Black pilot hired by Frontier Airlines.

A lifetime of flight

Ashby became interested in flight as a boy delivering newspapers in his neighborhood. He read stories of Black aviators and was determined he’d fly one day. So when he was 17 in 1944, rather than waiting to be drafted, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces, where he tested well and was placed at the Tuskegee Institute for flight training. He was assigned to bases in Japan, where all-white squadrons refused to accept him, and the Black company that finally did took him off flying status. But Ashby remained in the Air Force after World War II and he was given his chance to fly for his country, flying bombers in the Korean War and later stationed in England in a Cold War assignment.

After retiring from the Air Force in 1965, Ashby sought work as a professional pilot. He was hired by United Airlines, but they had no Black pilots at the time, so they assigned him to work as a ground flight operations instructor. He was among the team that established the training program for Boeing 747s. In 1973, he moved to Frontier Airlines, where he became the company’s first Black pilot. He was hired as a second officer and was later promoted to captain before his retirement from Frontier in 1986. Ashby is believed to have been the first Black commercial pilot to have served all the way to the airline industry’s mandatory retirement age of 60, and he was the only Tuskegee Airman documented to have become a pilot for a major commercial airline.

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Notable quote

“In my youth, the state of black and white relations would stay the same. My parents taught us to adapt to the conditions of the time. I never realized how much things would change for the better. We are here and capable of doing any job well. The military is one of the best equal opportunity organizations.” —from a 2013 interview for Luke Air Force Base

Tributes to Robert Ashby

Full obituary: Military.com

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