Groundbreaking African American Aviators

February is Black History Month and to celebrate the amazing contributions African American aviators have made to aviation history, we wanted to celebrate some influential black pilots in history.

Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman (Jan. 26, 1892–Apr. 30, 1926) was the first black female pilot and the first African American to hold an international pilot license’s license. Coleman learned to fly in France in a Nieuport Type 82 biplane. Upon returning to the U.S., she quickly realized that to make a living as a civil aviator, she would have to become a stunt flier. So she launched a successful career in exhibition flying.

Eugene Jacques Bullard

Eugene Bullard (Oct. 9, 1895–Oct. 12, 1961) was the first black American military pilot and one of just two black combat pilots in World War I (the other being Ahmet Ali Çelikten). As a teenager, Bullard stowed away on a ship bound for Scotland to escape the racial discrimination in America, but at the outbreak of World War I, enlisted in the 1st Regiment of the Foreign Legion, since volunteers from overseas were allowed to serve in French colonial troops.

Tuskegee Airmen

The first African-American military aviators in the United States armed forces, the Tuskegee Airman, were subject to the Jim Crow laws during World War II as the American military was still racially segregated. All black military pilots trained in the U.S. received their training at Moton Field and the Tuskegee Army Air Field near Tuskegee, Alabama, where they got their name. The budding pilot program received a big publicity boost when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited in March 1941 and flew with the black chief civilian instructor, C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson. After landing, she cheerfully pronounced, “Well you can fly, all right.”

War accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen include:

  • 1,578 combat missions
  • 112 enemy aircraft destroyed in the air, another 150 on the ground, 148 damaged
  • 950 rail cars, trucks, and other motor vehicles destroyed
  • 1 destroyer put out of action, 40 boats and barges destroyed

Out of the 992 pilots trained in Tuskegee from 1941-1946, 355 were deployed overseas and 84 lost their lives to combat or accidents.

Currently African Americans make up just over 2% of commercial airline pilots in the U.S. and the number of black female pilots is less than 1%. FedEx is among the leaders in employing female pilots — with over 300 — but has only one African American female pilot.

This month, let’s celebrate all the African American pilots who have changed aviation history, and continue to do to this day!

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