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BEAUFORT, S.C. (June 2, 2022) – Before his retirement and return to his native Beaufort, Maj. Gen. Harold “Mitch” Mitchell and his wife, Kelly, called Seattle their home. For 31 years, Mitchell flew for Alaska Airlines, while continuing to serve his country.
But as busy as he was, that only took up part of his time. Mitchell’s passion for youth education, especially to reach children of color who might be inspired toward a career in aviation – as he was as a boy, working on his family’s farm, and seeing Marine jets fly over their home – led to the establishment of the Michael P. Anderson Memorial Aerospace Program at the Museum of Flight in Seattle.
Since its inception in 2009, the program has educated 1,000+ students in grades 6-8 in STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and math).
On April 30, Mitchell was awarded the 2020 Pathfinder Award by the Museum of Flight – a ceremony postponed twice due to Covid – in honor of the impact he has had on so many young people’s lives.
Mitchell, now a city councilman for the City of Beaufort, never met Lt. Col. Michael P. Anderson, the black astronaut who perished in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003. But Mitchell found himself stirred by a call to action from Christine Gregoire, then the governor of Washington State. At a memorial service for Anderson in Spokane, Wash., where Anderson grew up, Gregoire said the state needed to leverage the legacy of Anderson, especially with children.
“Michael tried to inspire children to be all that they could be,” Mitchell said. “I saw him once in Las Vegas in 1999. It was at a convention for black aerospace professionals and Tuskegee Airmen. Michael was there as Youth Day speaker, and was surrounded by kids.”
Beginning the program
In 2009, Mitchell’s leadership led to erecting a statue in Anderson’s honor at the Museum of Flight. But that was just the beginning. His team, which included Lt. Col. Ronald Limes, Lt. Col. Kimberly Scott, and Capt. Millison Fambles, won the support of museum CEO (and retired astronaut) Bonnie Dunbar as well as Alaska Airlines, to begin a STEM program at the museum that would reach disadvantaged children of color.
“The Museum of Flight’s goal is to be the foremost education museum in the world,” Mitchell said. “They said, we’ll take the fund-raising off you – you continue to bring young folks to the museum. They asked us to go to communities that had been absent at the museum, and tell them about the museum so that they could take advantage of the many wonderful opportunities the museum had to offer.”
And that’s what Mitchell and his colleagues did.
The Michael P. Anderson Scholars program has grown over the years, and is now an integral part of the museum’s educational programs. During that time, Mitchell brought in a number of black astronauts – Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden (a friend and mentor), Dr. Bernard Harris, Joan Higginbotham, Leland Melvin – to talk to the students.
“There’s that saying, ‘See one, be one.’ We wanted students to see astronauts, scientists and engineers who looked like them.’”
Many of these students, Mitchell said, have returned to the program to speak to new scholars while in college or after college, and many have become engineers.
Getting into aviation
There was nothing guaranteed about Mitchell becoming a pilot, and having a successful career in both military and civilian life.
“I was attracted to airplanes from the first time I saw one,” Mitchell said, remembering how he would see fighter jets flying above his family’s small farm in Sheldon. He was one of nine children, and he was only one who set his heart on being a pilot – before he even knew what that meant.
“One day, I was out plowing the mule, and four blue jets flew across the house. They were just a beautiful blue color flying in very tight formation. Well, I didn’t know it then, but they were the Blue Angels. I thought to myself, ‘now that looks like a lot more fun up there than I’m having down here behind this plow.’”
A friendly fighter pilot
One day, during his senior year in high school, he and his brother were working at Brays Island Plantation when he met a Marine in his blue dress uniform, who had recently returned from serving in Vietnam.
“I asked him if I could see his airplane. He said ‘sure.’ He came to school one day (Mitchell was attending Robert Smalls High School), and took me to the Air Station, and showed me his F-4 Phantom jet. I decided then, ‘that’s for me.’”
The deal was clinched when the pilot said he was soon flying cross-country to MCAS El Toro.
“I asked, where is that? He told me, ‘California, just a little south of Disneyland.’ I said, how are you going to get out there? He said, ‘We’re going to fly a two-ship (two jets—two aviators per jet).’ I asked how are you going to pay for all that? He answered, ‘It’s all required training, the Marine Corps will be paying us.’”
Mitchell, whose only experience with the term “cross-country” was high school track, was ready to sign up.
Mitchell was in ROTC at South Carolina State University, where he was expecting to fly Army helicopters until a Marine recruiter told him there was a good chance that he could fly fixed-wing aircraft if he became a Marine. “I found out that my training could lead to being an airline pilot,” Mitchell said. “So not only could I enjoy flying, but I could make a living out of it too.”
Mitchell did become a Marine, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1972, the beginning of an illustrious career in both the Marines and Air Force.
“That trip to the air base changed my life,” he said. Just as the Michael P. Anderson Scholars Program he spearheaded has also changed lives.
The Pathfinder Award
Mitchell and several others were honored on April 30 at the Pathfinder ceremony at the Museum of Flight. And he’s not embarrassed to admit he got a little teary-eyed.
But why shouldn’t he? As the museum said in its tribute to him: “What Mitchell has done, after two careers of amazing accomplishments, is to find a way to positively impact the youth of Washington State: to challenge them, inspire them and provide opportunities where there previously were none. The beautiful thing about his work is that his impact will be felt for years to come. In the finest Pathfinder tradition, Mitch Mitchell has indeed made a significant contribution to the development of the aerospace industry.”
Photos: Top: At the Pathfinder awards ceremony, Retired Maj. Gen. Mitch Mitchell is flanked by Alaska Airlines Capt. Steve Fulton, left, chairman of the Pathfinder Selection Committee, and Matt Hayes, president and CEO of the Museum of Flight.
Bottom: Pathfinder honorees at the awards ceremony in April include Howard Lovering, left; Bob Bogash, Mary Lu Kirchner (accepting her late husband Mark's award); Wendy :Lawrence, and Mitch Mitchell.
For more information on the Pathfinders awards: https://www.museumofflight.org/About-Us/pathfinder-awards