Black History Month - Historic Aviators
“The air is the only place free from prejudice.” -Bessie Coleman
During Black History Month, learn about just a few of the courageous black men and women who were broke down racial barriers in aviation for future generations.
Bessie Coleman defied racial prejudice as a barnstorming pilot at air shows in the 1920s. Her talent was inspirational to women and the African-American community across the world – she was the first black person to earn an international pilot’s license. Her flying career though, was cut short after she perished in an accident in 1926.
During World War II, Benjamin Davis Jr. led the Tuskegee Airmen in air combat throughout the European theatre of the war, specializing as a long-range bomber. Davis would go on to be the first African-American general officer in the U.S. Air Force and retired as a four-star general. Breaking barriers ran in the Davis family, his father was the first African-American general in the U.S. Army.
Janet Bragg was a phenomenal female pilot who enrolled in the Curtiss-Wright Aeronautical School as the only female in an aircraft mechanics class of 24 black males. Bragg helped break many aviation stereotypes. She was the first African-American woman to hold a commercial pilot license.
William Powell envisioned people of color in aviation, a vision he called “Black Wings” - later the title of a book he wrote. After fighting in World War I, Powell became fascinated by flight and founded the Bessie Coleman Aero Club. Powell wanted full participation of African Americans in aviation as pilots, mechanics and future business leaders.
Willa Brown was both the first African-American woman to earn a pilot’s license in 1938, and the first African-American woman to become an officer in the Illinois Civil Air Patrol. A lifelong activist, Brown helped co-found the Cornelius Coffey School of Aeronautics, the first private flight training academy in the U.S. to be owned and operated by African Americans.
James H. Banning set a new record for pilots of color by flying from Los Angeles to New York during his illustrious career. In 1932, Banning and Thomas C. Allen completed the first transcontinental flight by black airmen. Unfortunately, Banning’s life was cut tragically short in a plane crash in 1933.
The U.S. Army Air Corps opened a segregated training program for blacks in Tuskegee, Alabama in 1941. The Tuskegee Airmen were the first black military aviators in the AAC. Their contributions helped encourage aviation integration in the U.S. and military. Nearly 1,000 pilots were trained in Tuskegee and were credited with many accomplishments during World War II, including 1,578 combat missions.