To the Skies: Honoring Black Aviators

by | Feb 24, 2023 | President Message

As Black History Month comes to a close next week, this week, we look to the skies to honor the Black aviators who have defied all of the longstanding hurdles. While we continue to diversify the skies, we must take the time to acknowledge those who came before us and, against all odds, sought to command the sky. In this regard, we must take the time to honor those Black aviators who have made significant contributions to the aviation industry in the United States. Despite the constant barriers that they faced, these pioneers paved the way for future generations of Black pilots and astronauts. We must honor their accomplishments and tell their stories so that they continue to inspire and empower people from all backgrounds to pursue their dreams.

Despite facing systemic racism and discrimination, these pioneers broke barriers and paved the way for future generations of Black pilots and astronauts. Recognizing and honoring their accomplishments is essential, as their stories inspire and empower people from all backgrounds to pursue their dreams.

One of the most prominent figures in Black aviation is Bessie Coleman, the first African American woman to earn a pilot’s license in 1921. Born in Texas in 1892, Ms. Coleman faced numerous obstacles in pursuing her passion for flying. She was denied entry into aviation schools in the United States because of her race and gender, but she refused to give up on her dream. Instead, she traveled to France to earn her pilot’s license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale, learning both the skills of aviation and the French language. In returning to the United States, Ms. Coleman became a popular airshow performer, all the while inspiring other African Americans to pursue careers in aviation. While her journey ended in 1926, her legacy lives on as an inspiration to generations of aviators.

Among the legacy of Black aviators inspired by Bessie Coleman, there is Willliam Powell. Powell, a soldier, engineer, and entrepreneur, discovered his passion for flying in 1927 during a veterans’ reunion in Paris. Like so many of his time, he faced discrimination while trying to become a pilot due to his race. After applying to numerous flight schools, the Warren School of Aeronautics in Los Angeles would provide Powell the opportunity to pursue his dreams. Powell’s love for flying was not only for himself, as he saw aviation as a vehicle for fighting for social justice for the Black community. As such, he founded the Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs, the first aviation club for Black Americans, and launched a flight school for them.

In 1931, the club sponsored the first-ever “All-Negro Air Show,” widely covered by Black newspapers, and elevated the Aero Club’s status in Black communities across the United States. The event was so successful that it led to civic officials meeting with Black aviators at city hall, marking the first time local officials formally welcomed African Americans to Los Angeles. In addition to Powell’s long list of firsts, he would later start the Craftsman Aero-News, the first trade publication for African Americans, and produced a documentary about Black pilots.

Jesse L. Brown was another trailblazer who broke the color barrier in military aviation. In 1948 Brown earned his pilot wings as the first African American to complete the U.S. Navy’s basic flight training program. Brown had wanted to be a pilot since the age of six when his father took him to an air show. Despite being turned away from numerous flight schools, Brown refused to take “no” for an answer and enlisted in the Navy to learn how to fly and would later receive the Distinguished Flying Cross. Brown fought in the Korean War and became the first African American pilot to be killed in action. Jessie L. Brown’s story has been memorialized in the 2022 film Devotion.

Today, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, African Americans represent less than 3 percent of pilots and flight engineers in the United States. That is not to say that they did not make great strides in pushing, not just for their benefit, but for those who would follow the path they created, with organizations like Black Aerospace Professionals and United Airlines Aviate Academy.

Simply put, Black aviators have significantly contributed to the aviation industry in the United States. Despite facing systemic racism and discrimination, these pioneers broke barriers and paved the way for future generations of Black pilots and astronauts. Recognizing and honoring their accomplishments is essential, as their stories inspire and empower people from all backgrounds to pursue their dreams.

From Eugene Bullard, the first Black combat pilot, to Tuskegee Airman Benjamin O. Davis Jr., the first African American general in the US Air Force, Black aviators have made their mark in the history books. Their achievements demonstrate the continued progress made by Black aviators in the US and inspire future generations to reach for the stars.

While the push for diversity continues, we must also acknowledge that more is needed. We must continue to lift our voices and demand that our oppressors hear our voices. Black History Month is a time to recognize our heroes and icons of the movement and a reminder of how much work remains undone. With each step forward, let us raise our hands to lift one another as we ascend toward the mountaintop with a sky full of possibilities.

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