Honoring the Accomplishments of Black Aviators in the U.S.

African-American men, women have been integral part of U.S. aviation from the start

By Matt Neistein

Published February 20, 2023

Read Time: 9 mins


The struggles faced by African-Americans throughout our nation’s history have permeated every industry, and aviation is unfortunately no exception.

Even today, in a country where they make up more than 13 percent of the population, Black Americans are dramatically underrepresented in aviation. For example, only 7 percent of aircraft mechanics are Black, and fewer than 3 percent of pilots and flight engineers are Black, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

However, strong efforts are being made to lower the barriers to careers in aviation for marginalized communities, including African-Americans.

From organizations like Sisters of the Skies and the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, to United Airlines’ recently launched Aviate Academy in Arizona and outreach programs at Pittsburgh International Airport, the industry is taking steps to diversify the workforce and equalize opportunities for people of color.

They follow in the footsteps of men and women who fought for a chance to be in the cockpit at a time when airlines wouldn’t even allow them to board as passengers.

In honor of those pioneers’ strength and courage, we’re celebrating Black History Month by sharing some of their stories in Blue Sky News.

William Powell: Advocate for ‘Black Wings’

William Powell was many things: a soldier, an engineer, a successful entrepreneur. But none of those pursuits fascinated him as much as the sky did.

Born in 1897 and raised in Chicago, Powell was an electrical engineering student at the University of Illinois when World War I erupted. He dropped out to become a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, where he served in a segregated unit.

A poison gas attack forced him back to civilian life, where he finished his degree and opened a series of gas stations and auto parts stores back home. But his imagination, like so many others at that time, had been captured by Charles Lindbergh and the mystique of flight.

In 1927, he attended a veterans’ reunion in Paris, where he took an aerial tour over France—his first time in a plane. And thus he found his true calling: becoming a pilot.

Powell struggled to find a flight school that would accept a Black man. He even tried enlisting in the Army Air Corps, to no avail. The last place he applied was Warren School of Aeronautics in Los Angeles.

To his surprise, he was accepted; the owner told him that since he had students of Asian and Mexican descent, it only made sense to allow African-Americans, as well. Powell sold all his businesses, moved to California and paid $1,000 (about $16,000 in 2023) for flight training.

His passion for flight was not just about himself, however. Powell envisioned aviation as a vehicle to fight for social justice for the Black community. Even before he earned his license in 1932, he had started the Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs, named in honor of the first licensed African-American aviator, who had died only a few years earlier.

It was the first aviation club for Black Americans, and soon the organization launched a flight school for them as well. James Banning, himself an iconic pioneer, was the chief instructor.

Powell had accomplished so much, but his vision didn’t end there. In 1931, the club sponsored the first-ever “All-Negro Air Show,” and Powell led the first-ever aerial formation comprised solely of Black pilots. The Goodyear blimp even made an appearance.

The show was so successful it prompted a second event several months later. The day before it opened, civic officials met with visiting Black aviators at City Hall. It marked the first time African-Americans were formally welcomed to the city of Los Angeles.

The shows were ignored by mainstream media but widely covered by Black newspapers. The publicity elevated the aero club into celebrated status in Black communities across the U.S., and Powell welcomed guests such as Joe Louis and Duke Ellington.

Powell later started the Craftsman Aero News, considered by many to be the first trade publication for African-Americans. He also produced a documentary about Black pilots, in addition to writing a fictionalized account of his life, Black Wings.

Powell died in 1942 at age 45, likely due to health issues caused by his war injuries. But before his death, Powell learned of the establishment of the 99th Pursuit Squadron—the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the first all-black combat aviation unit in U.S. history, which is honored with an exhibit at Pittsburgh International Airport.

James Banning and Thomas C. Allen had only known each other for four days before taking off on the first transcontinental flight completed by Black pilots. (Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution)

James Banning: Forging his own path

Like so many Black Americans refused access to opportunity, James Banning decided to build his own legacy—literally.

Born in Oklahoma in at the turn of the century, Banning moved to Ames, Iowa, in 1919 to study electrical engineering at Iowa State College, where he also owned and operated an auto repair shop.

In 1920, he took his first ride in a plane during an air circus and decided to become a pilot. However, he could not find a flight school that would accept him because of his race.

After being taught to fly by an Army aviator in Des Moines, Banning used his mechanical experience to piece together an airplane out of refurbished parts and an old engine. He eventually collected enough solo flight hours in it to become the first African-American pilot licensed by the U.S. Department of Commerce, in 1926.

Like William Powell, Banning believed aviation could be a force for social justice. In 1929, he moved to Los Angeles to become the chief instructor at the Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs, billed as the “most experienced African American pilot at that time.”

Banning bought a biplane and named it Miss Ames. As the Great Depression devastated the nation, he saw the hope and joy inspired by Charles Lindbergh’s exploits and set out to mirror them with a cross-country flight.

But the contrast was stark: Lindbergh had deep-pocketed sponsors, a custom-built aircraft and an adoring media. Banning was broke and had a 14-year-old Alexander Eaglerock biplane. His mission was going to take a little more ingenuity.

In 1932, Banning met a Black pilot and mechanic named Thomas C. Allen, who shared his vision and agreed to join him on the historic flight. Four days after they met, the two took off from Dycer Airport in Los Angeles.

They landed in Long Island, New York, 21 days later; however, they had only spent about 42 hours in the air. Because they had no money, at each stop along the way they had to raise any support they could from local citizens, including lodging, food and fuel. They were nicknamed “the Flying Hobos.”

One of the many stops they made was in Pittsburgh, where they were greeted by Robert L. Vann, legendary publisher of the Pittsburgh Courier, a leading Black newspaper in the U.S. They were greeted as heroes, and met with local leaders of the Democratic Party, who made them a deal: if they agreed to drop leaflets heralding Franklin D. Roosevelt’s candidacy for president as they passed over Pennsylvania, the party would pay for the rest of their trip.

When they arrived in New York, the mayor handed them a key to the city. The first Black pilots to make the transcontinental trip were feted at Harlem’s famed Cotton Club by Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway.

Sadly, Banning had only a few more months to live; he was killed in a plane crash in San Diego in 1932.

In a tragic twist of fate, he was the passenger in a two-seat aircraft guided by a much more inexperienced white pilot—an instructor at the flight school would not allow a Black person to fly the plane.

Willa Brown was a trailblazer in aviation and politics. (Photo courtesy of the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution)

Willa Brown: Teaching her people to soar

Willa Brown’s legacy in the skies actually began during her time as a high school teacher in Indiana.

Born in 1906, she earned a bachelor’s degree in 1927 from Indiana State Teacher’s College and spent five years in Gary classrooms. She then moved to Chicago and held a variety of jobs; however, her roots as a teacher would eventually blossom spectacularly.

In 1934, she met pioneering Black pilot John C. Robinson, “the Brown Condor,” who introduced her to other pilots. She was soon taking flight classes at Harlem Field, a segregated airport, with Cornelius Coffey, a renowned Black aviation mechanic and pilot.

She also studied aircraft maintenance at Curtiss-Wright Aeronautical Academy, the first accredited U.S. flight school to accept African-Americans; she was one of only a handful of female students. Brown earned her mechanic’s license in 1935. Two years later, she also earned an MBA at Northwestern University.

She made history in 1938 as the first Black woman to earn her private pilot’s license in the U.S. A year later, in 1939, she again made history when she became the first to earn a commercial pilot’s license.

That same year, she, Coffey and Enoch P. Waters—a city editor at famed Black newspaper the Chicago Defender—formed the National Negro Airmen Association of America with the goal of building more interest in aviation among African-Americans.

Brown served as national secretary, flying around the country and doing radio interviews to encourage the Black community to participate in aviation. She and Coffey also launched the Coffey School of Aeronautics, which focused on training Black pilots. More than 200 Tuskegee Airmen graduated from their school.

In 1942, Brown became a lieutenant in the Civil Air Patrol, its first-ever Black officer.

Her passion for creating opportunities for African-Americans eventually led her to seek public office. In 1946, she ran in the Republican primary for Illinois’ 1st congressional district, the first Black woman to ever compete in a U.S. congressional primary.

She did not win the primary, and a second run in 1950 also ended unsuccessfully. In 1962, she returned to teaching in high schools, retiring in 1971. But she was not yet done paving the way for African-Americans: a year later, she became the first Black woman to serve on the Women’s Advisory Committee of the Federal Aviation Administration.

Brown died in 1992 at the age of 86. Last year, she was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.

Robert Lawrence was a chemical engineer and fighter pilot before being selected to an early version of the astronaut program. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Air Force)

Robert Lawrence: Seeking the stars

The paths paved by Powell, Banning, Brown and others for their fellow African-Americans to reach the skies eventually reached all the way to the stars.

Born in 1935 and raised on the South Side of Chicago, Robert Lawrence was a talented science student who earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Bradley University. He later earned a PhD in physical chemistry from Ohio State.

While in college, he served as a cadet commander in the Air Force ROTC and eventually was commissioned as second lieutenant in the Air Force Reserve.

After completing military flight training in Missouri, Lawrence became a pilot at age 21. He was stationed in Germany and tasked as a flight instructor for the German Air Force.

Lawrence eventually became a test pilot for the USAF, logging thousands of hours in experimental aircraft like the Lockheed F-104 Starfighter and the North American X-15 rocket-plane, a precursor to the space shuttle.

In June 1967, Lawrence finished training at the USAF Test Pilot Training School at Edwards Air Force Base in California, whose graduates also include Chuck Yeager, Richard Bong and Gus Grissom.

Lawrence was then among 17 men selected for the Air Force’s Manned Orbital Laboratory program, part of the military’s spaceflight program at the time. That made him the first-ever Black astronaut.

During a press conference announcing the selection of Lawrence and several others, he was asked if it was a landmark moment for race relations in the U.S.

“No, I don’t think so,” he said. “It’s another one of those things that we look forward to in civil rights—normal progression.”

A few months later, Lawrence was killed in a crash while training another test pilot at Edwards AFB. He was 32. Sadly, he never made it to space.

But his name is inscribed among the stars. In 2020, NASA named an asteroid between Mars and Jupiter after the pioneering pilot: Robertlawrence 92892.

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