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Wings of Gold: Leadership and Management

Retired helicopter pilot paves the way for minorities in the Navy

Editor's note: In honor of the centennial celebration of naval aviation, The Daily Transcript will be running a series of articles focusing on naval aviators and their leadership and management skills. The following is another article in the series.

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During Lin Walton's first check flight at Naval Air Station Pensacola, he said his instructor did something that made him throw his hands in the air.

"My instructor called me a nigger in the cockpit," Walton said. "I was so enraged, I couldn’t do anything. I couldn’t fly. I just put my hands up."

That was 1967. While Walton said things have changed since then, he sees African Americans and other minorities still running up against what he calls "unevenness" in the Navy and other service branches.

"The Navy I grew up in was very different," he said. "It was very uneven. By far and away, most of the people in my squadron and my commanders were awesome people, but then my first boss on the carrier was a bigot, racist, sexist, homophobic, the whole bit."

Retired Navy Cmdr. Lin Walton. Staff photo: Sarah Strong

Because Walton grew up during segregation, he was not allowed to attend the most prestigious colleges, and instead went to the historically black Norfolk State University. Today, he sees how graduating from those prestigious colleges can be a significant advantage.

"I sat on a selection board years later and there was a comment from one of the guys who graduated from Harvard, an electing officer, about someone who had a record I thought was mediocre," Walton said. "The guy said, 'He's a Harvard guy, let's promote him.' I've never heard anyone say, 'He's a Norfolk State guy or Prairie View guy, let's promote him.' It's subtle, very subtle. He didn't mean any harm, I’m sure."

Although Walton was trained to fly H-2 helicopters and served in Vietnam, he says his most important contribution to the Navy was his work to correct the lingering unevenness in the Navy today. He worked as an adviser to minority officers through the National Naval Officers Association and as a leader in the Chief of Naval Operations effort to diversify the senior officer corps of the Navy.

"My last job in the Navy was running the Navy’s minority recruiting effort in Washington, D.C.," he said. "It was an awesome job, really solidified what I had been doing behind the scenes."

It also prepared him for his civilian career. After retiring from the Navy in 1987 as a commander, Walton started a consulting firm for new home developers and then provided minority recruiting services for banks.

"All my career I worked to make a difference and helped other minority officers figure out how to get through hoops," he said. "So when I got out of the Navy, I provided a full range of services for developers from getting construction loans, to doing commitments and long-term interest rates. I worked six-and-a-half years and closed a little over 1,300 loans."

Then, Walton used his experience in minority recruiting to help banks with their strategies for lending to low and moderate income markets.

"I used my contacts from the Navy, because I knew Hispanic and African American people from all over the country," he said. "So I could get into communities where they couldn’t get into, because I was credible. I would also hire people from those communities."

Walton has since retired from consulting work, and now devotes his time to mentoring minorities and others in the Navy.

"We make sure we catch these kids when they come into flight training and have a network of instructors to mentor," he said. "We mentor them from day one until they retire or die."

Part of the challenge is also recruiting what Walton called disenfranchised kids, meaning people from low socio-economic backgrounds.

"There are a lot of corporations, companies and branches of service trying get at that small cadre," he said. "The challenge is getting that number of people, getting that deep bench that would increase the flow of upwardly mobile aviators."

Walton owes his own Navy career to a Navy admiral who recruited him. That, and a bit of luck.

Retired Cmdr. Lin Walton (center) was trained to fly H-2 helicopters and served in Vietnam. Courtesy photo

He was a senior in college when his father asked if he wanted to spend a night tending bar at a Navy admiral's party.

"I said, 'Hmm, it's Friday night, I don't know,' but then I said OK because it was $10 an hour and minimum wage was $1.25," Walton recalled.

At the party, the admiral asked Walton what he did for a living. Walton said he was in school.

"He said, 'Have you ever thought about flying for the Navy?' I grew up in Norfolk and had only seen one black Navy officer ever. So I said, 'no sir,' and he said, 'are you interested?' and I said 'yes sir.'"

At 7 a.m. the next Saturday, Walton took an exam -- "after a long Friday night," he said -- and passed. He went to flight training school less than a year later.

Although he experienced racist instructors and commanders in the Navy, Walton most often received support. When he arrived in San Diego in 1968, he was met with a different kind of racism from outside the Navy.

He was looking for a place to live with his wife and met with a Realtor.

"He told me I had to go to Southeast San Diego to get housing," Walton said. "I didn’t know San Diego, but I knew what he meant. I went back to the base and told my commanding officer what had happened. I said I’d gone through that in Pensacola, but I’m a Navy pilot now and I will never allow that to happen to me and my family.

"He said, 'Ensign Walton, you can go any place you want and if they don’t rent to you, you come tell me and we'll put that place off limits to everyone from the Navy and all federal workers, because you’re one of us.' That was pretty powerful for me."

To deal with the times he did face racism in the Navy, Walton relied on his upbringing.

After his instructor called him a racial slur during training, Walton called his mother.

"She said, 'OK, what does him calling you a nigger have to do with becoming a Navy pilot?' and I said nothing," Walton recalled. "She said, 'then focus on what you can do, not what you can’t.'

"There's still a lot of stuff that's not fair, but life’s not fair. The Navy is a really good place, and I recommend it for young people."

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