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Celebrating African-American aviation contributions — one tweet at a time

Feb. 06, 2020
7 min read
Celebrating African-American aviation contributions — one tweet at a time
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I've been an #avgeek since taking my first flight on a Pan Am Boeing 747 from New York-JFK to Heathrow Airport in London at age 6. I was blessed that my parents indulged my hobby, going out of their way to find educational material about African Americans who made contributions to aviation. Note that they did this long before the internet became a thing.

In 2013, I started using Black History Month to send out a tweet every day in February to look beyond well-known aviation pioneers like the Wright Brothers, Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh and focus on African Americans, under the hashtags #BHM and #BlacksInAviation.

Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman to earn a pilot's license. (Photo in the public domain)

Many AvGeeks and history buffs don't know that African Americans have been involved with aviation almost since the industry began. They faced obstacles to learning to fly based on the color of their skin, yet they persevered. Here are some of the pioneers I've tweeted about.

Bessie Coleman

One of my sheroes is Bessie "Queen Bess" Coleman. She wanted to learn to fly, but no U.S. flight school would accept her because she was a black woman. Undeterred, she learned French and moved to France, where she was accepted at the Caudron Brothers' School of Aviation in Le Crotoy. She became the first African-American woman to earn a pilot's license and the first African American to earn an international aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, both in 1921.

In 1922, Coleman performed the first public flight by an African-American woman, doing her famous loop-the-loop and figure-eight aerial maneuvers. She toured the U.S., giving flight lessons, performing in-flight shows and encouraging African Americans and women to learn to fly. Recalling her own difficult path to becoming a pilot, she said, "I refused to take no for an answer."

On April 30, 1926, Coleman died in a crash during a test flight.

Marlon Green

I'm the daughter and granddaughter of Air Force officers, so the story of Marlon Green especially resonates with me. Green was an Air Force pilot who flew the SA-16 Albatross with the 36th Air Rescue Squadron in Tokyo. Looking to the future in 1957, he applied to become a pilot with Continental Airlines but refused to check off the application's racial-identity box or to include his photo with the application. After it was discovered that he was black, Green was rejected by the airline, although five other less-qualified white applicants were hired. He sued Continental for discrimination in the case Colorado Anti-Discrimination Commission v. Continental Airlines, Inc.

A Continental 727 in the ‘70s-era livery designed by Saul Bass. (Image courtesy of Patrick Smith)

The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and on April 22, 1963, the court ruled that Green had been unlawfully discriminated against. He was hired by Continental in 1965 and flew for the airline until 1978. His legal victory paved the way for the hiring of David Harris as the first African-American pilot for a major carrier, American Airlines, in 1964. Harris flew for American for 30 years, retiring in 1994.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in a Piper J-3 Cub trainer with C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson. (Photo by the U.S. Air Force)
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in a Piper J-3 Cub trainer with C. Alfred "Chief" Anderson. (Photo by the U.S. Air Force)

C. Alfred "Chief" Anderson

Without the contributions of C. Alfred "Chief" Anderson, the history of African-American aviators might look very different. Known as the Father of Black Aviation, Anderson was enthralled with learning to fly but, like Bessie Coleman, no one wanted to teach him. So he went to ground school, became an aircraft mechanic and hung out at airports to learn as much as he could. He bought his own plane, hoping to learn how to fly with a local flying club, but was deterred again. So, amazingly, he taught himself how to take off and land.

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Anderson honed his flying skills by making a deal with a fellow flying club member who was a licensed pilot but had no airplane. The club member wanted to visit his mother on weekends in Atlantic City, so Anderson let him rent his plane in exchange for lessons. He earned his pilot’s license in August 1929. He was again deterred from earning an air transport pilot’s license, but he was helped by a German aviator. In 1932, he became the first African American to receive an air transport license.

After performing in a series of air shows and doing goodwill tours to introduce blacks to aviation, Anderson was recruited in 1938 to become a flight instructor for the Civilian Pilot Training Program at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Two years later, he became the chief civilian flight instructor for Tuskegee Institute's new program to train black pilots. This is where he earned his nickname "Chief."

Anderson made headlines worldwide when he took First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt on a flight in March 1941 after she remarked that she'd heard that “colored people couldn’t fly.” His flight not only boosted the Tuskegee program but pushed President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration to further study training black pilots for military service.

In June 1941, Anderson was chosen by the Army as Tuskegee’s ground commander and chief instructor for aviation cadets of the 99th Pursuit Squadron, America’s first all-black fighter squadron. The 450 Tuskegee Airmen who saw combat flew 1,378 combat missions, destroyed 260 enemy planes and earned more than 150 Flying Crosses among numerous other awards. After the war, he offered ground and flight training to black and white students under the GI Bill and also to Army and Air Force ROTC cadets. In 2013, he was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

To learn about these aviation icons and more, please follow me on Twitter at @AvQueenBenet, where I'll tweet every day at noon Eastern Daylight Time.