Early black pilots bucked heavy headwinds


WASHINGTON -- It will become a better-known fact, now, that the first black American to win a pilot's license -- Bessie Coleman -- was a woman and that she had to go to France to get it.

And that Benjamin O. Davis Jr., a 1936 graduate of West Point, became the first black general in the Air Force in 1954.


Along with a lot more lore, presented in text and pictures, in 'Black Wings' The American Black in Aviation,' a new exhibit that opened Thursday for a two-year run at the National Air and Space Museum - one of the top tourist draws in the nation's capital.

'Headwinds' is the term appropriately applied to the first section of the exhibit, which opens with the words:

'The historic flight of the Wright brothers in 1903 captured the imagination of the American public. Participation by black Americans in this new field, however, did not come easily.

'There was a widely held notion in the aviation community that blacks lacked the aptitude to fly, and blacks found themselves arbitrarily exluded from flight instructions.'

The text then goes on to relate how Bessie Coleman couldn't get licensed to fly in her own country, and after that trip to France, became one of those barnstorming stunt pilots of the early days of American aviation.


She was killed in a crash in 1926, at age 33, but 'inspired many young blacks to enter the field of aviation.'

The second section of the exhibit, along a wall in the 'pioneers' section of the museum's upper floor, tells the story of black military pilots in World War II -- who were segregated into their own flying school at Tuskegee, Ala., and into their own squadron of P-51 fighters in the European Theater.

The final segment, 'An Era of Change,' brings the struggle of blacks up to date: their long-delayed acceptance into commercial aviation -- and into the space program.

Davis, who retired from the military in 1971, provided the narration for a videotape on the Army Air Corps training school at Tuskegee, part of the exhibit's section on World War II.

Davis commanded the all-black 332nd Fighter Group that flew more than 1,580 missions covering bombers over some of Nazi Germany's toughest targets.

He was on hand for a preview of the exhibit last week, along with Clarence 'Lucky' Lester, who posed under a model of his red-tailed P-51 'Miss Pelt'; Thomas C. Allen, who with James H. Banning made the first transcontinental flight by blacks in 1932; and Charles F. Bolden, a Marine pilot and one of four black astronauts in the space shuttle training program.


One of the early black civilian pilots was Charles Alfred 'Chief' Anderson, who trained many of those cadets at Tuskegee.

In an interview a couple of years ago, Anderson said 'white people didn't think any of the minority groups, Chinese, Japanese, anybody other than whites, could fly planes' in those days.

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