On September 18, 1932 pilot, James Banning took off from Dycer Airport, Los Angeles in an orange and black Alexander Eaglerock biplane along with his mechanic Thomas C. Allen, to embark on a historic 3,000 mile journey across the U.S.A in a rickety airplane put together with surplus parts and a sputtering 14-year old Curtiss engine. Zigzagging across the country, through Arizona and Texas, then northeast through Oklahoma, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh, PA, they reached their final destination, touching down in Valley Stream, Long Island after a total of 41 hours and 27 minutes aloft, in a span of 21 days.
While a total of 41 hours and 27 minutes to cross the United States by air may not seem so impressive in this day and age, one must consider the financial and societal challenges that confronted the two men over the course of the 21 day journey that made Banning’s successful flight both groundbreaking and inspiring for the next generation of African American pilots who were to follow in his path.
At the height of the Great Depression with unemployment rising to 23%, some 300 thousand companies out of business and hundreds of thousands of families losing their homes, the challenge for Banning and Allen to successfully complete their trans-continental flight in 1932 was thought to be insurmountable when two black airmen, who called themselves, ‘’The Flying Hoboes’, left Los Angeles with a total of $25 between them in their pockets. But Banning’s dream of becoming the first black pilot to fly cross-country was fueled by his belief that freedom in the sky would create freedom on the ground.
James Herman Banning was born in Oklahoma on November 5, 1899. His love of airplanes and dream of becoming a pilot began as a young boy in the years after the Wright Brother’s historic powered flight at Kitty Hawk in 1903 and Wilbur Wright’s subsequent flight in 1905 which covered an unprecedented 24 miles in 39 minutes and 23 seconds.
In 1919 the Banning family moved to Ames, Iowa and there James enrolled at Iowa State where he studied engineering. By the spring of 1920 James took his first airplane ride at an air circus that came to town and as his calling to fly grew, he ended his studies and made the choice to pursue aviation instead. Along with that pursuit, Banning was repeatedly denied entry into American flight schools because of the color of his skin. Eventually he learned to fly privately from an army aviator who instructed him at the Raymond Fisher Flying Field in Des Moines and from 1922 to 1928 Banning owned and operated an auto repair shop in Ames. Since no individual or flight school would lend Banning an airplane so that he could complete required solo hours, he purchased an engine from a Fisher Flying Field crashed plane and gathered automobile and airplane scraps to build his own biplane which he named “Miss Ames’. By 1927, James H. Banning became the first African American in the United States to obtain a pilot’s license, number 1324, from the U.S. Department of Commerce. (Note: Emory Malick, is believed to be the first African American male to receive an FAI (Federal International) license in 1912).
Leaving Iowa for Los Angeles in 1929 Banning became the chief pilot for the Bessie Coleman Aero Club, an organization whose mission was to encourage interest in aviation among African Americans, founded by visionary black aviator, William Powell. Banning barnstormed in air circuses and in 1930 he flew Illinois representative Oscar De Priest, the first black to serve in Congress since Reconstruction, on an excursion over South Los Angeles.
During the 1930s ‘Golden Age of Aviation’, record-setting flights, air racing and aviators dominated the news and wealthy financiers and corporations jumped at the opportunity to sponsor these daring flights and aviators. At the height of the Depression, when Americans sought aviation heroes to take their minds off the dire economic straits of The Depression, James Banning wanted to be one of those heroes. With that in mind, after hearing a rumor of a $1,000 prize to the first black aviator to fly across the continent, he formulated a plan to be the one to accomplish that goal. Banning, however, would have no sponsors, nor would any of the mainstream media cover his story. Undeterred and without fanfare, he sought after his own backers.
Enlisting mechanic, Thomas C. Allen to accompany him on the flight, Allen came up with the idea of soliciting small donations, a warm meal, a place to overnight and money for a tank of gas, from individuals they would meet at each of the towns that they landed at along the way. Donors would inscribe their names on the wing of their airplane which Banning and Allen called ‘The Gold Book’. As they made their way across the United States, stopping at some twenty-four communities, 65 contributors signed their names into ‘The Gold Book’ and with each take-off, the hopes and blessings of their donors soared along with them. As word of their flight attempt made it into the local black press, radio and newspapers began to report their progress, drawing people to watch for their anticipated arrival. By the time ‘The Flying Hoboes’ made it to St. Louis, thousands stood by to greet them. In Pittsburgh, with increasing press coverage and Election Day approaching, Democratic party officials enlisted Banning and Allen to publicize Franklin Roosevelt’s presidential campaign by dropping some 15,000 leaflets supporting the Democratic ticket along their flight over Pennsylvania. In exchange the campaign would fund the rest of the flight, and the men’s expenses, as well as the cost of care for the flight-worn Eaglerock on its return trip to California.
On October 9th, after an arduous 21-day journey, Banning, with Allen, completed the flight, landing at Curtiss Airfield in Valley Stream, Long Island. Upon their arrival New York City mayor Jimmy Walker gave them the keys to the city and a parade in their honor in Harlem. Shortly after Banning completed the flight, he wrote an article for the Pittsburgh Courier entitled, “The Day I Sprouted Wings” in which he describes his first solo flight in a plane he had assembled with his own two hands.
Only three and half months after his historic trans-continental flight, on February 5, 1933, Banning, who had returned to Los Angeles, attempted to rent an airplane so that he could participate in a San Diego airshow. Refused because of his race, Banning instead participated as a passenger in a biplane, sitting in the front cockpit with a white Navy pilot at the controls. After the pilot brought the plane into a steep climb, its engine stalled and the relatively inexperienced pilot was unable to gain control of the plane, causing it to crash in front of hundreds of spectators, killing both men. Banning was 34 years old at the time of his death. But the legacy of flight that he left behind still lives on.