The names and places of America’s 1960s civil rights leaders are deeply embedded in the nation’s story. Leaders and visionaries, such as Martin Luther King, Jr.; Rosa Parks; and John Lewis led America’s fight for civil rights. Cities in Alabama including Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma served as the backdrop to many of the movement’s pivotal moments.
But two decades prior, at the height of the second World War, a lesser known Alabama city—Tuskegee—struggled through its own civil rights battle, paving the way to the U.S. military’s eventual desegregation and laying a foundational piece of the Civil Rights Movement. A small, mostly African-American town, Tuskegee was thrust into the national spotlight when it became home to a U.S. government-sponsored experiment called the Tuskegee Experiment. Its goal was to train African Americans as pilots to serve in World War II.
But the Tuskegee Airmen, as they became known, weren’t just pilots. They were also engineers, mechanics, navigators, instructors and any other men and women at Tuskegee Army Air Field who supported the group’s mission. They became engrained in the Tuskegee community as much as they were engrained in the war effort. Airmen took classes and lived at the nearby Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University), and earned their wings at the school’s airfield before moving onto the Army’s airfield.
So, as it turned out, African Americans could become pilots—very good ones. They could also become the engineers, mechanics, navigators, and other support staffers who allowed the pilots to focus on flying. By the end of the war in Europe, Airmen across the continent reportedly asked for the Tuskegee Airmen by name to protect their bombers flying missions over Nazi Germany. They also earned the now-famous moniker “Red Tails,” due to the noses and tails of their P-51 Mustangs and P-47 Thunderbolts being painted bright red.
Some 50 years after the first five Tuskegee Airmen graduated as certified military pilots, a young Melvyn Heard stepped foot in that same, small Alabama town.
A Chicago native, Heard’s appearance in Tuskegee was unusual, to say the least. There to attend Tuskegee University, he had passed up several prestigious engineering schools near Chicago to go 800 miles south and get his degree. It was largely thanks to his high school woodshop teacher, a Tuskegee University graduate, who mentored Heard and ultimately convinced him that a 3,000-student school in rural Alabama would offer him a far greater education than anywhere else. Those grounds, the same that famous African-American aviators like General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. (the first African-American general in the U.S. Air Force) and General Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr. (the first African-American four-star general in the U.S. Armed Forces) walked as students in the 1940s, became Heard’s second home.
Heard’s story in the past 25 years isn’t so much about what he’s done as much as it is about what he’s done for others—much of it informed by his time at Tuskegee. So, although he leads GE Aviation’s global military customer and product support team, Heard is more likely to tell you about the 120 Tuskegee University graduates and students he’s recruited to GE Aviation for jobs and internships. Known company-wide for his commitment to diversity and inclusion initiatives, Heard has left, and continues to leave, a lasting impact.
But helping students find opportunities at GE Aviation is really just the start for Heard. In his view, the real challenge isn’t hiring diverse talent. It’s retaining diverse talent.
“Look, I think at this point, the proof is there as to why diversity should be a business priority. There are plenty of studies out there showing that diversity makes a positive impact,” he explained.
“Our focus, once we have the people, has to be inclusion. Inclusion makes people stay. What are we doing from a strategic perspective to make people feel welcome? To empower people to bring their ideas to the table? Inclusion encourages people to bring their whole selves to work, which helps people do their best work.”
It’s about changing a culture, according to Heard. And he’s been at the forefront of those changes his entire career at GE Aviation. He previously served as president, and now as executive champion, of the African American Forum. The group’s goal is to help connect GE Aviation’s African-American employees to leadership, mentorship, and professional opportunities, as well as host volunteer and community events.
It’s one thing to talk the talk when it comes to diversity and inclusion in a corporate setting. “I’ve always tried to walk the walk as well,” Heard remarked.
Fellow Tuskegee graduate and systems engineering and evaluation manager, Nolita Lewis, knows this firsthand. Lewis met Heard early in her career through recruitment efforts at Tuskegee University, before going on to graduate from GE Aviation’s Edison Engineering Development Program. While Lewis has helped some of the company’s highest-profile engine programs, including the LEAP-1B and GE9X, get off the ground in recent years, she looks back at her early career as the foundation for her success.
“Melvyn was instrumental in helping me get acclimated to GE Aviation and one of the many reasons that I have stayed for so long,” Lewis said. “He is a very caring and supportive leader that I can always count on to be available and provide guidance when necessary.”
“He has a true passion, especially when it comes to Tuskegee students and alumni, for recruiting, connecting, and developing meaningful relationships.”
In his current role at GE Aviation, that passion for human connection is a necessity. Going out to meet customers across the globe dozens of times each year, Heard says he falls back on his experiences as an African American to better relate to customers.
“The concept of feeling out of place in an environment is really nothing new to me,” Heard said. “This job involves lots of international travel, and the sooner I got comfortable being uncomfortable, the more I could focus on the job, which is building authentic, productive relationships with our customers.”
It makes for some incredible experiences, Heard says. Among his favorite customer visits was spending four days aboard the USS Carl Vinson, a U.S. Navy supercarrier that stretches past 1,000 feet long and can host more than 6,000 sailors at once. Seeing GE Aviation’s products in action on the ship—a literal floating city—put the purpose of his job directly in front of him. And coming from a family with a long U.S. military legacy, Heard said the experience carried more weight than most.
But it was really full circle for Heard in 2019, when he saw Boeing’s GE 404-powered trainer, the T-X, renamed the T-7A Red Hawk and painted to honor the Tuskegee Airmen.
“The idea of training African-American soldiers to go fly airplanes in the 1940s was viewed as an experiment. You look at the T-7A next-generation trainer in 2019, and that’s the trainer that all combat pilots in the Air Force are going to train on, regardless of race or gender or background,” he said.
“Going to that school, following in the footsteps of those aviation trailblazers, coupled with the fact that it’s a GE-powered aircraft,” Heard said before pausing. “It brought a tear to my eye.”