A number of notable Airmen and national security figures passed away in 2022, figures who made lasting contributions to air and space power through leadership or technical expertise.
Charles McGee – A veteran of 409 combat missions in WWII, Korea and Vietnam, and one of the last surviving Tuskegee Airmen, Brig. Gen. Charles McGee died Jan. 16 at age 102. As a member of the 332nd fighter group in Italy during WWII, he flew bomber escort missions in the P-39, P-47 and finally the P-51. He returned stateside to teach other pilots to fly the B-25 bomber at Tuskegee Army Air Field, Ala., through the end of the war. McGee remained a pilot as the Army Air Forces became the U.S. Air Force, and during the Korean War, he flew 100 combat missions in F-51s. In Vietnam, he flew 172 combat missions in the RF-4C reconnaissance jet. He retired as a Colonel with more than 6,300 flight hours. In retirement, McGee was vice president of a real estate company and manager of the Kansas City airport. He also helped grow the Tuskegee Airmen Association. He received the Congressional Gold Medal, was named an Elder Statesman of Aviation by the National Aeronautics Association, and earned an AFA Lifetime Achievement Award. McGee was ceremonially promoted to Brigadier General in February 2020 and honored that week at the State of the Union address.
Gail Halvorsen – Known as the “Candy Bomber” of the Berlin Airlift, Air Force Col. Gail S. Halvorsen died Feb. 16 at the age of 101. Halvorsen organized fellow flyers to drop candy and other treats to the children of Berlin, cut off by the Soviets from overland shipments of food and goods. The Air Force endorsed the initiative and soon there were drives across the U.S. to collect treats for Airmen to drop to the Berlin children. He was lauded as a hero by the people of Berlin for offering hope in a time of deep crisis. After the Berlin Airlift, Halvorsen’s career with the Air Force focused on development of airlifters and rockets such as the Titan III and the abortive X-20 Dyna-Soar reusable space vehicle. He also developed plans for the Air Force’s never-built Manned Orbital Laboratory. In retirement, he was a Mormon missionary in England and Russia. He also organized candy drops in five other war zones, and was a goodwill ambassador for the U.S. Air Force. He wrote two books about his exploits. Air Mobility Command’s Halvorsen cargo loader is named after him, as is the C-17 aircrew training center in Charleston, S.C.
Eugene Habiger – Gen. Eugene E. Habiger died March 18 at age 82. After a two-year enlistment in the Army, Habiger graduated from college and Air Force Officer Training School, becoming a pilot. Over his 35-year Air Force career, Habiger amassed more than 5,000 flying hours in the B-52, KC-135, KC-10, C-7A and T-39. During the Vietnam War, he flew 150 combat missions in the B-52, participating in the Arc Light bombing campaign. He also instructed U.S. and Vietnamese pilots in the C-7 Caribou special operations aircraft. Advancing rapidly through various strategic deterrence assignments, including bomber commands, Habiger was named head of United States Strategic Command in 1996. He built military-to-military relationships between U.S. and Russian strategic forces to reduce tensions. In retirement, Habiger was the Director of Security and Emergency Operations for the Department of Energy, charged with reinvigorating the security culture of its nuclear operations. Later, he was CEO of the San Antonio Water System. He served on the board of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a non-profit seeking to restrain nuclear proliferation and reduce the threat of weapons of mass destruction.
Chuck Boyd – The only former POW to become a four-star general, Gen. Charles G. Boyd died March 23 at age 83. Boyd was a fighter pilot in F-100s and F-105s. On his 105th mission over North Vietnam, Boyd was shot down while attacking surface-to-air missile sites outside of Hanoi, demonstrating bravery for which he received the Air Force Cross. He was seven years a POW, enduring torture, interrogation, malnutrition and solitary confinement. Repatriated in 1973, Boyd resumed his Air Force career, holding staff and command assignments, mainly in Europe. He commanded Air University and was deputy commander of U.S. European Command, and retired in 1985 as a full general. Boyd was later an advisor to the Speaker of the House and served on or chaired a number of defense commissions. He was a senior vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and served as a director with a number of defense and intelligence-oriented companies. He was CEO of the Business Executives for National Security and chaired the Center for the National Interest.
Jim McCoy – The sixth Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force, James M. McCoy was the first enlisted person to serve as president and chairman of the Air Force Association (now the Air & Space Forces Association). McCoy died July 13 at the age of 91. He joined the Air Force in 1951, and started out as a radar operator but switched to training, and over his career created or helped found many of the noncommissioned officer programs and schools still educating the enlisted force today. In 1974, he was named one of the 12 Outstanding Airmen of the Year. In 1979, as as CMSAF, he advised Chief of Staff Gen. Lew Allen, Jr. and Air Force Secretary Hans M. Mark on enlisted issues and recommended ways to preserve professionalism and morale during the so-called “hollow force” years. Retiring after 30 years of service, he was active with many civic associations and became the top leader of AFA, serving two terms as National President and two as Chairman of the Board.
Jim McDivitt – Air Force Brig. Gen. James McDivitt, who died Oct. 13 at age 93, was the commander of the 1969 Apollo 9 mission, the first in-space test of the Apollo command and lunar modules functioning together. McDivitt took the lunar lander, making its first test flight, 100 miles away from the command module and then successfully rendezvoused and docked with it. The mission paved the way for the first lunar landing a few months later. As a space rookie, he also commanded Gemini IV, a mission that saw co-pilot Ed White make the first U.S. spacewalk. McDivitt was an Air Force fighter pilot in the Korean war, where he flew 145 missions and twice received the Distinguished Flying Cross. He was also an Air Force test pilot who flew chase on the X-15 program. After retirement from NASA and the Air Force, he was a business executive, spending 14 years with Rockwell International, a leading aerospace company.
Ash Carter – Defense Secretary during the Obama Administration, Ashton Carter, who died Oct. 25 at age 68, was a mentor and example to many. Carter was an accomplished scientist and Rhodes Scholar with a doctorate in physics from Oxford University as well as a seasoned public servant and diplomat who held numerous senior policy and technology positions in the Pentagon. He oversaw the anti-ISIS fight, opened all military jobs to women and permitted transgender persons to serve in the U.S. military. He sped the delivery of mine-resistant vehicles to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, instituted the “Better Buying Power” acquisition reforms and presided over the selection of the KC-46 tanker. Carter helped de-nuclearize several former Soviet states after the demise of the Soviet Union, under the Nunn-Lugar program. He taught at Harvard University, negotiated numerous nuclear weapons treaties, and received five awards of the Defense Department Distinguished Public Service Medal. He served on the boards of the MITRE Corp., MIT’s Lincoln Labs and Draper. Carter authored 11 books on ballistic missile strategy, international security and defense management.
Joe Kittinger – Best known for his ultra-high-altitude balloon ascents and freefall jumps, Col. Joseph W. Kittinger, Jr., who died Dec. 9 at age 94, was also an Air Force fighter pilot who was held in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” as a POW during the Vietnam War. In 1959-1960’s “Project Excelsior,” Kittinger made record-setting jumps—one from more than 100,000 feet—to test astronaut equipment and escape gear and to assess the effects on human physiology of operating at extreme altitudes. His record for longest freefall still stands. For this work, he received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Harmon Trophy. Kittinger flew the A-26 Invader and F-4 Phantom in Vietnam , and shot down a MiG-21 in a dogfight, receiving another DFC. But he was shot down himself in May 1972 and endured torture and near-starvation at the hands of the North Vietnamese for 321 days. He retired from the Air Force after 29 years with more than 7,600 flying hours. In retirement, Kittinger made a solo balloon flight from the U.S. to Italy, and helped daredevil Felix Baumgartner prepare for a high-altitude freefall meant to break Kittinger’s own records. He wrote a book about his life called “Come Up and Get Me,” with co-author Craig Ryan.