Airmen and 80s movie buffs are likely to be familiar with the 1986 cult classic Iron Eagle. Sometimes called the “Top Gun of the Air Force,” Iron Eagle did not have the big budget, box office success or star power that its Naval-based counterpart did (although the soundtrack did have its fair share of great songs). However, the film did feature Academy Award winner Louis Gossett Jr. (of An Officer and a Gentleman fame) as Colonel Charles “Chappy” Sinclair, the wise Vietnam Veteran fighter pilot who gave Top Gun‘s Jester a run for his money. Chappy serves as a mentor to the main character, teenager Doug Masters played by Jason Gedrick, and guides him throughout the film.
As a mentor, Chappy shares his knowledge and experience, gained in the unforgiving skies above Vietnam, with teenage Masters. An accomplished fighter pilot, Chappy helps Masters to acquire intelligence, create a rescue plan and steal two F-16 fighter jets to attack the fictional Middle Eastern country of Bilya where Masters’ father is being held. While these fictional feats are impressive, they pale in comparison to the accomplishments of the real-life Chappy.
Daniel “Chappy” James, Jr. was born on February 20, 1920 in Pensacola, FL. He graduated Tuskegee University in 1942 and received his pilot wings and commission as a 2nd LT at Tuskegee Army Airfield, Alabama on July 28, 1943. He remained at Tuskegee to train pilots for the all-black 99th Pursuit Squadron. Having completed training in the P-40 Warhawk fighter, Chappy trained on the B-25 Mitchell bomber and was stationed in Kentucky and Ohio until the end of the war.
Chappy first saw action during the Korean War. In 1949, he went to the Philippines as a flight leader in the 12th Fighter-Bomber Squadron, 18th Fighter Wing at Clark Field. In July of the next year, he left for Korea where he also flew with the 44th and 67th Fighter-Bomber Squadrons in P-51 Mustang and F-80 Shooting Star fighters. During the war, Chappy flew a total of 101 combat missions.
After the war, Chappy continued his Air Force career, holding commands and serving at a number of bases. In 1954, while stationed at Otis Air Force Base, Massachusetts, Chappy was given the “Young Man of the Year” award by the Massachusetts Junior Chamber of Commerce for his outstanding community relations efforts. In June 1957, he graduated from the Air Command and Staff College.
After serving on staffs, and later as assistant director and director of operations for a number of wings, Chappy went to Thailand in 1966 to support combat missions in Vietnam. He became the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing vice commander under triple (then double) ace Col. Robin Olds. Flying from Ubon Air Base in Thailand, the two men created a strong and effective tactical command, earning them the nickname “Blackman and Robin.” In total, Chappy flew 78 combat missions into North Vietnam during the war.
Following his service in Vietnam, Chappy became the commander of the 7272nd Fighter Training Wing at Wheelus Air Base in the Libyan Arab Republic. Following the coup by radical Libyan military officers, including Muammar Gaddafi, the U.S. announced plans to close Wheelus Air Base. Wanting to see how far he could push the Americans, Gaddafi sent a column of armored half-tracks through the base housing area at full speed. Unamused by the stunt, Chappy closed the base gates and confronted Gaddafi. During their confrontation, Gaddafi kept his hand on the pistol in his hip holster. “I told him to move his hand away,” Chappy recalled having had his own .45 strapped to his hip. The future Libyan dictator complied. “If he had pulled that gun, his hand would have never cleared the holster.”
Chappy’s Air Force career saw him serve as principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, vice commander of the Military Airlift Command, commander in chief of NORAD/ADCOM, and special assistant to the Chief of Staff, U.S. Air Force. Chappy retired in 1978 as a four-star general, the first African-American to achieve the rank.
The next time you watch Iron Eagle, remember General Daniel “Chappy” James, Jr., the trailblazing African-American pilot who served in three wars, stared down Gaddafi, and dared to see just how far he could go.