Tuskegee Airman's Legacy Soars on at Museum and Through Those He Inspired

Maj. Levi Thornhill served as part of the all Black 332nd Fighter Group in World War II. His legacy lives on at Compton-Woodley Airport.

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A funeral service is scheduled Wednesday for Maj. Levi Thornhill, who served with the legendary Tuskegee Airmen and inspired generations of young pilots and others to pursue their dreams of flight.

Thornhill died two weeks ago, just three days before his 98th birthday. His funeral is scheduled for Wednesday in Inglewood. 

Thornhill’s legacy as a member of the first Black military aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps, which escorted bombers in World War II, lives on at Compton’s Tomorrow’s Aeronautical Museum.

Tuskegee Airman Maj. Levi Thornhill died earlier this month, but his legacy survives at Compton museum. Toni Guinyard reports for Today in LA on Wednesday Sept. 23, 2020.

“He was out there almost every day,” said Dorothy Thornhill, his wife of 33 years. “That was where his heart was.”

The museum is at Compton-Woodley Airport, where several iconic red-tailed planes feature signatures of Tuskegee Airmen on their sides. Thornhill was instrumental in mentoring young pilots for decades before his death through an after-school program at the airport.

Pilot and entrepreneur Robin Petgrave, founder of the museum inspired by Thornhill, said his longtime friends was devoted to helping young pilots build confidence.

“This one little place that Levi inspired has changed the perception of the whole planet,” Petgrave said.

Ronnel Norman was one of the students who participated in the program. He remembers trying to find a place as a teenager growing up in the neighborhood that would help him achieve his goal of becoming a pilot. 

“I rode my bike from down the street, and I was looking for flight training,” Norman said. “Those folks wouldn’t give me the time of day. There was another group here that didn’t take me seriously.

“I was 16 at the time.”

Now, he flies the Airbus A321 for Alaska Airlines. 

Dorothy Thornhill smiles as she holds the Congressional Gold Medal awarded to her husband of 33 years, Maj. Levi Thornhill.

Other students have become engineers and airline mechanics. One worked on the SpaceX Falcon9 rocket. 

“A lot of people say they want to be mentors,” Petgrave said. “Levi actually acted on it in a profound, energized way.”

When she was 15, Kimberly Anyadike, from nearby Inglewood, made history by becoming the youngest person to fly a plane across the country, from Compton, California, to Newport News, Virginia, and back.

Joining her on that historic journey in 2009 was Maj. Levi Thornhill.

"I was in essence flying with history. It's said that we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors, and he was literally in the plane with me. It meant so much," Anyadike told NBCLA in 2018.

Tuskee Airman Levi Thornhill is pictured in this photo provided by his wife Dorothy.

Military service was part of Thornhill’s family history. His father was a Buffalo Soldier, Black soldiers who fought on the Western frontier after the American Civil War. 

Thornhill's military service began when entered the Army Air Corps and trained in Nebraska and Illinois, eventually becoming a crew chief. Along with all 13 members of his class, he was deployed in January 1944 to Italy as part of the all Black 332nd Fighter Group. His job was to make sure the planes, P-39s, P-47s  and later P-51s known as the Red Tails, were maintained for combat. 

"Levi was a very positive person," wife Dorothy said. "Even with what he went through in World War II with the racism. He said they just did their jobs.

"He said, 'I was one of those who kept them flying. Nothing you could do if you couldn't get them off the ground.'

Thornhill was dedicated to his work, but faced significant obstacles due to racist beliefs and racial segregation in the U.S. and the armed forces. It wasn't until September 1940 that President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced that the Army Air Corps would train Black pilots, establishing a training site in Tuskegee, Alabama.

Volunteers from throughout the county signed up to train as pilots, mechanics, control tower operators, maintenance crewmembers and serve in other roles.

Petgrave said Thornhill took pride in his work as a crew chief and later obtained pilot training.

"He would tell the pilots, 'Go out and do your thing, but make sure you bring me back my airplane. You might be the pilot, but this is my airplane,'" Petgrave said.

After the war, he became a flight chief and Squadron Inspector and retired from Nellis Air Force Base in 1965. Thornhill then worked for Bonanza Airlines as a factory representative and assistant to the vice president of maintenance engineering. He later worked at Hughes Airlines.

In 2007, he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, along with other Airmen.

"He lived his dream flying those planes," Dorothy Thornhill said.

NBC4's Jonathan Lloyd contributed to this report.

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