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Remembering Frontier Captain Robert Ashby

Posted on Feb 19, 2024|By Society of Black Professionals

This profile is brought to you by the F9 Society of Black Professionals in honor of Black History Month. Some remember Robert “Bob” Ashby by his resume: U.S. Air Force (USAF) Lieutenant Colonel, Tuskegee Airman, first Black commercial pilot, Frontier Airlines Captain, United Airlines flight operations instructor, and on the team that created the Boeing 747 flight training program for the airline.

But according to Retired Southwest Captain and USAF (Ret.) Lt. Col. Larry Jackson, Ashby’s biggest legacy was that he opened the doors for everyone and his message for kids that they could do anything you put your mind to.

Bob was heavily involved in the Organization of Black Airline Pilots’ Aerospace Career Education (ACE) Academy with Larry – who is the current director for the Phoenix chapter of this group. ACE provides middle and high school youth with exposure to opportunities in aerospace through week-long summer academies.

“His work was designed to ensure that he not be the only one coming through the door and that there are more opportunities for people behind him,” said Larry.

And there was even more to him. We spoke with two gentlemen who knew him well: Retired Air Force Colonel Richard Toliver and Ben Bruce, Research Historian, ArcherRagsdale Arizona Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen, Inc.

“I met Bob Ashby more than twenty-five years ago at a Tuskegee Airmen Convention,” said Richard. “He had already retired as a Frontier Airlines Captain. As an Air Force air combat Vietnam veteran, I readily recognized and appreciated that Bob was a great American hero and patriot upon whose shoulders I humbly stood!”

Ben first met Bob at a military awards dinner that they both attended.

“When I introduced myself to him, I mentioned that I was a former air traffic controller and current flight safety officer for the USAF,” said Ben. “He mentioned that he was a retired Frontier Airlines Captain. He made no mention of being a member of the famed ‘Tuskegee Airmen’ at that time.”

According to Richard, through his years of knowing Bob, he was never one to toot his own horn.

“His quiet and humble demeanor covered a deep and passionate determination to help others achieve success regardless of the obstacles they faced. He was indeed an exemplary role model for every generation: Hard working, trustworthy, accountable, and respect for others no matter what their station in life is. Despite the tremendous racial and social barriers he faced during his life, he overcame them and lived victoriously to the end of his life.”

“Bob was a determined individual, but with a great sense of humor,” remembered Ben. “He had to overcome a lot of struggles with segregation and racial discrimination in his early life. Additionally, those struggles continued in the military in the 1940s, and then corporate organizations. He was always a professional and a gentleman, but good for a few laughs about life.”        

Ashby was born July 17, 1926 in Yemassee, S.C. He graduated from high school in the spring of 1944 and was called to active duty in August. After receiving some college training and passing various tests, he was sent to Tuskegee, Alabama in December for cadet training. He graduated as a bomber pilot post-war in November 1945 and was sent to Japan, assigned to a pilot replacement depot.

Bob in his most favorite role: interacting with children; Bob getting inducted into the Arizona Veterans Hall of Fame in 2007

Serving three more years in Japan, he returned to the states in May 1949 to join up with the 332nd Fighter Squadron where his flight status was restored. In July, the 332nd was disbanded due to the integration of the armed forces. After three years of moving from base to base, Bob was ordered to Korea where he flew Douglas B-26s in combat.

After more assignments – including a stint in England – Ashby retired from the Air Force in July 1965 with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

Despite his extensive training, Bob could not get a job as a commercial airline pilot, but never gave up on his dream.

“In 1973, Robert took a shot at a line pilots’ job with Frontier,” said Ben. “In the interview he talked to the evaluators about his credentials and then asked them to take a chance. He told them, ‘If things did not pan out the way you wanted you can show me to the door.’ They took a chance and Bob excelled as a line pilot, then second officer and finally as the first Black captain for the airline. He was proud of his accomplishments, but he knew that he put in the work to get the achievement.”

After more than a decade piloting commercial aircraft, he retired from Frontier Airlines in 1986, becoming the first African American pilot to reach the then mandatory retirement age of 60 with a major airline.

Frontier Airlines honors Captain Ashby for his heroism and profound contributions to our country and aviation.

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