Col. Walter L. Watson, Jr., USAF (Retired) was the first and only African American to qualify as a crew member in the SR-71, a super-secret aircraft (Blackbird) that set altitude and speed records that still stand today.
Watson was born in Columbia, South Carolina, he was the oldest of four children of Walter L. Watson, Sr. and Mildred Platt Watson. After graduating C.A. Johnson High School, he attended Howard University in Washington, D.C where he earned a Mechanical Engineering degree and commission as an Air Force Officer through the ROTC program. Watson later obtained a master’s degree from Chapman College of Orange, CA in Organizational Behavior and Human Resource Management.
He entered the Air Force as an avionics maintenance officer, but in 1973, he was selected for aviation training, beginning a diverse and distinguished flying career in the Air Force. His first assignment was flying the C-130E in Southeast Asia. He later became a flight instructor, flight examiner, and flight commander in tactical fighter and strategic reconnaissance squadrons that flew F-4C/D/E, F-111D, and SR-71 aircraft. Watson was the first African American and only one to qualify as a crew member of the SR-71.
After completing his flying career, Waston continued to serve in the Airforce in production and training. As Commander and Professor of Aerospace Studies at North Carolina A&T State University, his leadership helped his unit to achieve the following production milestones: 1) 20% of all African-American Second Lieutenant Pilots, 2) 50% of all African-American Second Lieutenant Navigators, and 3) 25% of African-American female commissioners in 1993. These accomplishments led to assignments to a number of leadership positions at HQ Air Force Reserve Officers Training Corps (AFROTC at Maxwell AFB, AL). As the Chief of the AFROTC Scholarship branch, he supervised all scholarships for over 5,000 students across the nation with an annual budget exceeding $22 million.
Colonel Watson also served as a key decision-maker for Air Force Relations with Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). He received numerous awards and medals over his career time. He was awarded the Brig Gen Noel F Parrish Award which is Tuskegee Airmen Inc.’s highest national award for service and impact.