History in the Skies: Remembering Black pioneers
There was a time in America when the very idea of a Black pilot was as unthinkable as flying across the Atlantic Ocean. Small wonder, then, that the accomplishments of the early Black pilots—men and women—serve as a testament to the courage of the human spirit. Their yearning to emulate the freedom and peace of birds as they glide through the air has rightfully landed these ordinary Americans in the almanac of American trailblazers.
On June 15, 1921, at the age of 29, Bessie Coleman became the first African-American woman to graduate from the Ecole d’Aviation des Frères Caudon in France and to receive a pilot’s license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. Her brother who, upon his return from WWI, told stories of French women pilots, introduced Coleman, a farm girl from Atlanta, Texas, to the idea of flying. She went to France because she could not find anyone in the United States who would teach her. After her return, she spent the next five years lecturing, touring and putting on flying exhibitions for integrated audiences in hopes of raising enough money to open a school for Black pilots. She died during a routine test flight in April 1926 before she could realize that dream.
The same spirit that drove Coleman was also evident in the courage of the Tuskegee Airmen (top right). The Black men who trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Tuskegee, Ala., in 1941, fought against racism to become one of the best fighter squadrons of WWII. Fighting against the German forces at a time when the U.S. armed forces were segregated, the Tuskegee Airmen took it upon themselves to show their value as men to their society and the world. Because of their efforts, sacrifices and accomplishments during the war, President Harry Truman in 1948 issued Executive Order Number 9981 to end segregation in the armed forces.
Yet, Coleman and the Tuskegee Airmen’s breakthroughs were not enough to speed up the advancement of Blacks in the aviation industry. Once the war was over, many were unable to find work in the commercial or military sector. In February 1967, Edward Albertis Gibbs decided to take a stand. He founded Negro Airmen International Inc. (N.A.I.) to assist Blacks in their education and employment in aviation. Gibbs himself was an industry veteran, having taught at the Coffey School of Aviation in Oaklawn, Ill., the Lyon’s Flying Service at Zahn’s Airport in Amityville, N.Y., and in the U.S. Aviation Cadet Program at the Army Air Corps base in Tuskegee during WWII.
Since 1973, N.A.I. has conducted youth summer camps through its Summer Flight Academy to nurture and encourage new generations of pilots. The organization is part of the umbrella International Black Aerospace Council, established in 1996 to help develop a pool of highly capable minorities and women in the aerospace industry. Other member organizations are the U.S. Army Black Aviation Association‚ the Organization of Black Airline Pilots Inc., the National Black Coalition of FAA Employees Inc., the Black Pilots of America, the Bessie Coleman Foundation Inc. and the Tuskegee Airmen Inc.
As the country moves toward conquering space, pushing, as before, against the limits of gravity and nature, opportunities for Blacks are slowly expanding. Dr. Mae C. Jemison (top left) took Coleman’s simple dream of flying over the American landscape to orbiting the Earth itself. In 1992, she became the first African-American woman in space as a mission specialist aboard the shuttle Endeavor, nine years after Guion S. Bluford Jr. became the first African-American in orbit. To date, thanks to these pioneers, there are 13 African-American astronauts, three of them women. Dr. Yvonne Cagle, a U.S. Air Force colonel, and Stephanie Wilson are both qualified for mission assignments as flight specialists in the NASA program, but have not yet flown in space.