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F-35 arrival revives memories for retired fighter pilot

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Luther Mitchell Jr.
  • 56th Fighter Wing Public Affairs
F-15 pilot training began at Luke Air Force Base 40 years ago. With the arrival of the F-35, one retired fighter pilot reflects on his time as an F-15 Strike Eagle test pilot at Luke and his vision for the future of the Air Force.

"The F-15 was a great advancement in technology and performance in every respect," said retired Col. Richard Toliver, author and motivational speaker. "We made a quantum-jump with the F-15 in 1973. Today, young pilots are flying the F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter. As a retired fighter pilot, I'm delighted to see our country continue to advance in technology to ensure our young men and women are provided the best equipment and capabilities to do the mission of the Air Force and the country."

Toliver began his career during the Civil Rights Movement, a turbulent time in American history. He received his commission from Tuskegee University, Alabama, and trained with the original Tuskegee Airmen.

He served two combat tours piloting the F-4 Phantom II during the Vietnam War and returned home to begin fighter weapons school, eventually becoming one of very few African American instructor pilots for the F-4.

During his time in Vietnam, Toliver learned that America was lacking in air power and yearned for a way to improve America's warfighting capabilities.

"It didn't take long flying combat missions to realize we were woefully short of aircraft performance and weapons against the Russians," Toliver said. "So when I came home from Vietnam in 1973, I got involved in testing and development to improve our capabilities."

Toliver's reputation as a fighter pilot and instructor while stationed at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, earned him a spot on a six-man team that was sent to Luke AFB to begin testing the Air Force's newest fighter jet of its time -- the F-15.

"My combat record, experience and qualifications made me competitive, and I was one of six pilots selected to test the F-15 out of 5,700 pilots," Toliver said. "Being an African American was significant to being part of the F-15 training program at Luke."

Toliver is glad that Luke continues to be a home for ensuring America's freedom by training the world's greatest fighters.

"The requirement for the precise, effective application of power hasn't changed and this is what the F-35 will enable the young men and women of tomorrow to do," Toliver said. "We need to be able to meet the threat, whatever it is, and the key is having second-to-none capabilities in aircraft, equipment and people."

Toliver's career has been about serving his country and making sure Americans are ready to win future wars, he said. Knowing your past is also part of knowing where you are going, and this has been part of his career and his vision for Luke's future.

"We have done this at Luke for many generations, going back to World War II," he said. "There is a great history here at Luke. There is so much to gain in knowing the experience of those who paved the way before you. It motivates you, encourages you and helps you along."

Toliver is still part of the Luke family and has been invited on base as a motivational speaker. He is the author of two books and was at the presentation of the Red Tail aircraft by the 944th Fighter Wing during the Tuskegee Airmen convention. He recently spoke as a guest speaker for a graduating class of pilots at the 309th Fighter Squadron.

Toliver's formula for success is simple.

"When these young men and women leave here they have to be cocky in their minds, confident and believe that they can take on the world," he said. "They should think 'I have the best aircraft in the world, the best training and experience, and I am ready to go' because that is what ultimately wins when it's time to fight."