Black History Month Recognizes Aviation Pioneers

Emory C. Malick
Emory C. Malick

In recognition of February being Black History Month, it is also a good time to look at some of the major accomplishments of African-Americans in the field of aviation which began only a few short years after the Wright Brother’s first flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903, when Emory C. Malick became the first Black Aviator to earn a U.S. pilot’s license in 1912. 

But even since the earliest days of flight African-Americans had to overcome the barriers of racial discrimination in order to pursue their dreams, which is why many had to look abroad to learn how to fly.

Such was the case with Eugene J. Bullard, who in 1917, became the first Black U.S. military pilot and decorated French soldier; and Bessie Coleman, the first African-American female aviator to earn a U.S. pilot’s license in 1921, both of whom had to go to France in order to receive flight training.

James H. Banning and Thomas Allen
James H. Banning and Thomas Allen

It wasn’t long before other Black aviators would also take to the skies, like James H. Banning and Thomas Allen, who were the first to fly across the U.S. in 1926, and just five years later in 1931, the first all-Black air show in U.S. history would take place, ultimately becoming a springboard for many African-American stunt pilots who otherwise had no access to flying-schools.

In that same year, the Curtis-Wright Aeronautical School offered a course in aircraft mechanics to its first all-Black class, which would allow Cornelius Coffey to become the first African-American to earn both a pilot’s and mechanic’s license. 

And Coffey would go on to open a flight school that would later become instrumental in training U.S. Army Air Cadets at the Tuskegee Institute.

Charles Alfred Anderson, often regarded as the “Father of Black Aviation” and who taught himself how to fly, would train the first Black Air Force combat pilots as head of the Tuskegee Institute’s Civilian Pilot Training Program, a federal program that would pave the way for attaining equal rights for African-American pilots that would also spawn the first all-Black military combat group infamously known as the “Tuskegee Airmen”, whose red-tailed aircraft escorted U.S. bombers over Europe in WWII, and who never lost an aircraft.

In fact, their exemplary combat record played a major role in reversing the segregation laws that had divided the U.S. Armed Forces. The years following WWII opened a new chapter for former African-American military pilots and newcomers alike, as they branched out into commercial aviation and beyond.

Marlon Green became the first commercial airline pilot in 1963, while Jill Brown-Hiltz became the first African-American female pilot to fly for a major U.S. commercial airline in 1978.

On the space front, African-Americans also enrolled in NASA’s space program, some of which included Guion Bluford, who became the first Black astronaut to walk in space, Ronald McNair who was tragically killed in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, General Charles F. Bolden who would become the first Black administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and Dr. Mae C. Jemison, the first African-American female astronaut.

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