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FlyerTalk Celebrates African-American Achievements in Aviation

FlyerTalk Celebrates African-American Achievements in Aviation
Joe Cortez

On this Juneteenth, FlyerTalk wants to celebrate the achievements and contributions of African-Americans in aviation. These were just some of the pioneers who lead the way for equality in aviation all around the world.

Originally celebrated in the state of Texas, Juneteenth – also known as Freedom Day and Liberation Day – commemorates the day Union army General Gordon Granger came into Galveston, Texas and announced anyone held in the liberation of those held in slavery. Although the Emancipation Proclamation liberated slaves over two years prior, history suggests this was the first act of actual enforcement in the remote western state.

On today’s Juneteenth, 155 years after the proclamation was read at Ashton Villa, FlyerTalk celebrates the African-American pioneers in aviation. Their achievements paved the way for equality in the skies.

Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman, photographed in 1923 Photo Courtesy: Public Domain

By earning her pilot’s license in France, Bessie Coleman crossed multiple color and gender lines. She is not only credited as the first female African-American to earn a pilot’s license, but also the first Native American woman to do so. Her interest in flight was piqued in World War I, as aviation was used as a military tool. When American flight instructors wouldn’t teach her to fly on account of her color and gender, she went to Europe in 1921 to learn.

As an accomplished aviator, she returned to the United States and earned fame as a stunt flyer and parachutist. She is credited as the first African-American woman in the United States to perform a public flight. Although she aspired to start her own flight school, her life came to a tragic and untimely end in a test flight accident in 1926.

James Herman Banning and Thomas C. Allen

James Herman Banning. Photo Courtesy: National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

Calling themselves the “Flying Hoboes,” James Herman Banning and Thomas C. Allen set off in 1932 to do what no African-Americans had done before: Fly from Los Angeles, California to New York. Banning learned to fly from a white pilot, after flight schools barred him entry due to his color. After becoming one of the first black pilots in American history in 1926, Banning and mechanic Allen were confident in their mission.

With stops in El Paso, Texas, Oklahoma City, St. Louis, Missouri and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the two made the 3,300-mile trip logging over 40 hours of flight time. The achievement wouldn’t last long for Banning, as his life ended four months later in an aviation show crash.

Cornelius Coffey

Cornelius Coffey. Photo Courtesy: Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

With many aviation schools barring entry to people of color, licensed pilot and aviation mechanic Cornelius Coffey sought to even out the playing field. Alongside his wife and Civil Air Patrol officer Willa Brown, he founded the Coffey School of Aeronautics – both the first African-American owned pilot’s school, and the first not affiliated with a university.

The aviation school was credited with not only being open to people of color, but also training a number of the Tuskegee Airmen: The first black military aviation unit in the United States. His legacy lives on in the Cornelius R. Coffey Aviation Education Foundation, which grants scholarships to train the next generation of pilots and mechanics.

Marlon Green and David Harris

David Harris in front of a BAC One-Eleven 400 Astrojet. Photo Courtesy: American Airlines

After leaving the United States Air Force, Marlon Green discovered his job prospects were limited. He applied to fly for Continental Airlines in 1957 by leaving his picture off of his job application, as well as not answering a question about racial identity. When he didn’t get the job despite his qualifications, he took Continental to court. After years of litigation, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Green was passed over solely because of his race, and ordered the airline to instate Green.

The lawsuit opened the door for fellow pilot David Harris to get hired by American Airlines and become the first African-American pilot at a U.S.-based commercial airline. Green was ultimately hired by Continental in 1965, joining Harris as the first pilots to cross the commercial aviation color barrier.

James Plinton, Jr.

James Plinton, during his time as an military pilot trainer. Photo Courtesy: Reddit

By the time James Plinton, Jr. joined TWA, he was already an accomplished aviator. After earning his bachelor’s degree and pilot’s license, he went on to train around 150 military pilots in Tuskegee, Alabama, many of which flew during World War II. When American carriers wouldn’t hire him on the account of his color, he would go abroad to help launch Ecuadorian flag carrier Andesa.

In 1957, he was hired by TWA as the “executive assistant to the director of personnel and industrial relations.” It was the first time a black man held an executive title within a major airline, a position Plinton called a “fabulous opportunity.” He would later serve as a vice president at Eastern Airlines, a position he retired from in 1980.

Feature photo courtesy: Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum

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