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Home : News : News
NEWS | Feb. 28, 2018

From coal miner’s son to wing commander: African-American Airman led the way

By Lori A. Bultman 25th Air Force Public Affairs

Harold Beatty joined the Air Force in August 1967 in Knoxville, Tennessee, and over the next 35 years he made his way from airman basic to colonel, earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees along the way.

The son of a coal miner in the tiny town of Bonny Blue, the far western part of Virginia, Beatty would have had no option but to follow in his father’s footsteps. But when Beatty was just 7 years old, his father died in a mine collapse, allowing his family to make their way out of the small, one company town.

“Where I grew up, there was no indoor plumbing or running water. Not just my grandparents or parents, I lived through this, too,” Beatty said. “I went to a segregated school, two rooms for twelve grades, but never did I feel inferior to anyone. The feeling of inferiority comes from yourself; it comes from within.”

Beatty was one of the first black students to attend Knoxville’s West High School, and he continued his education at the University of Tennessee, but was forced to withdraw for failing to attend classes. It wasn’t long before his draft status was changed from 2-S (student) to 1-A, making him immediately eligible for the draft. He decided his best option was to join the Air Force.

His first enlistment, as an electronic intelligence analyst and communication specialist, came to an abrupt end when he did not qualify for a re-enlistment bonus, said Beatty.

After a short break in service, he reentered the Air Force in October 1971. Because of his previous ELINT duties and security clearance, he was assigned to the National Security Agency.

During his time at NSA, he was inspired to reenter college by a coworker who was taking leave to study for his college exams. That coworker motivated him to continue the education he left unfinished at the university in Knoxville, Beatty said, and he soon visited the Fort Meade, Maryland education office, where he tested out of multiple courses, and enrolled to attend others at a local college.

In 1975, as a pay grade E-5, Beatty was assigned to a communications squadron in Berlin, West Germany. At that time, the country was still divided.

“Over the next four years, I took 29 tests and passed 26 of them,” he said. “I decided not to test out of English composition, English grammar or English literature courses. I knew those classes were the foundation for all the other classes I would take in my college studies and my military career. I completed my bachelor’s degree in 1978, and immediately signed up for a master’s program.”

“Within a year, I knocked out my master’s degree,” Beatty said. “At that point, I was the only person of any rank in my unit with a master’s degree, including my commander,” he said.

This motivated Beatty to apply for officer’s training school.

“I fit in at OTS because I was one of the anomalies there. I was not only African-American, but I had more time in the Air Force than any of my fellow students and even my OTS instructors at the time,” he said. “I knew I made the right choice. I knew about the Air Force, I had been in for 12 years. I hit the ground running.”

“I got to the education table at in-processing at OTS and a lieutenant said to me, ‘You have no idea how far ahead you are. There are guys that worked four, five or more years after getting their commission trying to earn a master’s degree,’” Beatty said.

He recalled the OTS instructor calling him into the office and saying, “You came here with more years of service, you came here with more overseas tours, and you came here with more ribbons than I have. You can be a positive or a negative influence on your fellow OTS students,” the instructor said.


Beatty replied, “Sir, I came here for one reason. I didn’t come here to impress anyone, I came here to do the best I can, help anyone I can, and leave here as a second lieutenant.”

Beatty’s initial goals as an officer was to make the grade of major and serve the 10 years required to retire as a commissioned officer.

Commissioned in March 1980, and recognized as a distinguished graduate, the well-educated Airman was selected to be an air intelligence officer. He completed that training course and was assigned to headquarters, Tactical Air Command.

“I found out why they accepted a newly commissioned second lieutenant at that level of command. I was told it was because they wanted someone with a master’s degree, so that person could write and compose position papers, but the job also required a computer background.”

That is when Beatty was sent to Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi, to become a computer systems development officer.

After five years at TAC, Capt. Beatty went to serve on the Air Staff at the Pentagon.

“It was unusual for a captain to be assigned to Air Staff,” Beatty said. “My mentor, who I had replaced at TAC, had preceded me to the Pentagon, and he called me about a position as a program element monitor managing funds for the Air Force.”

In 1985, Beatty took the Air Staff job and transitioned through three positions:  program element monitor, Tactical Air Intel Systems; chief, Tactical Intelligence and Related Activities; and chief, program management branch, General Defense Intelligence Program.

At the Pentagon, Beatty was selected for the rank of major, two years below the zone. He was also selected to attend the Armed Forces Staff College.

In 1990, Beatty was assigned to Headquarters U.S. European Command and continued his fast track with his selection for lieutenant colonel two years below the zone and selection to attend the National War College at Fort McNair, Virginia.

In 1994, following NWC, Beatty assumed his first command at the 488th Intelligence Squadron, Royal Air Force, Mildenhall, England. During his stint commanding the personnel assigned to the RC-135 Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft, Beatty was promoted to colonel two years below the zone.

His next assignment, in 1996, was as commander of the 609th Air Intelligence Group, senior intelligence officer for 9th Air Force and U.S. Central Command Air Forces, at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina.

In 1998, Beatty continued his commanding role at the Air Force Technical Applications Center at Patrick Air Force Base, Florida. This was followed in 2000 by his selection to stand up and command the 70th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Wing at Fort Meade, Maryland, the Air Force’s first worldwide signals intelligence wing and the foundation for the Air Force’s National Tactical Integration program.

After two years at the 70th, Beatty decided over 35 plus years of service to his country was enough.

“I have regrets, but no doubts,” Beatty said of his career and decision to retire.

This inspirational patriot encourages the Airmen of today to be determined and persistent.

“Never confuse where you start with where you have to finish. There is nothing that you do early in your life that prevents you from finishing at the top, or somewhere near the top,” he said. “If I can do it, then you can do it.”