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Black Wings: Courageous Stories of African Americans in Aviation and Space History

Black Wings: Courageous Stories of African Americans in Aviation and Space History

by Von Hardesty

Colin Powell once observed that "a dream doesn't become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination, and hard work." This sentiment is mirrored dramatically in the story of African Americans in aerospace history.

The invention of the airplane in the first decade of the twentieth century sparked a revolution in modern technology. Aviation in the popular


Colin Powell once observed that "a dream doesn't become reality through magic; it takes sweat, determination, and hard work." This sentiment is mirrored dramatically in the story of African Americans in aerospace history.

The invention of the airplane in the first decade of the twentieth century sparked a revolution in modern technology. Aviation in the popular mind became associated with adventure and heroism. For African Americans, however, this new realm of human flight remained off-limits, a consequence of racial discrimination. Many African Americans displayed a keen interest in the new air age, but found themselves routinely barred from gaining training as pilots or mechanics. Beginning in the 1920s, a small and widely scattered group of black air enthusiasts challenged this prevailing pattern of racial discrimination. With no small amount of effort—and against formidable odds—they gained their pilot licenses and acquired the technical skills to become aircraft mechanics.

Over the course of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, African Americans have expanded their participation in both military and civilian aviation and space flight, from the early pioneers and barnstormers through the Tuskegee airmen to Shuttle astronauts.

Featuring approximately two hundred historic and contemporary photographs and a lively narrative that spans eight decades of U.S. history, Black Wings offers a compelling overview of this extraordinary and inspiring saga.

Editorial Reviews

School Library Journal

Adult/High School- Black Wings is a well-written, copiously illustrated book with sharp photographs (mainly in black and white) and colorful posters of the record of American blacks in aviation-from fabric-winged biplanes to outer space. Readers learn about pioneers like Bessie Coleman, the first black woman with a pilot's license; Eugene Jacques Bullard, the first black American to fly in combat (during World War I, for the French); and C. Alfred Anderson, the first to earn a Commercial Pilot License. About one-third of the book deals with the Tuskegee Airmen. These members of the first black combat flying organizations fought on two fronts during World War II: against the Luftwaffe in the skies over North Africa, Sicily, Italy, and Germany, and against racism at home. Because of their phenomenal success, the units were continued into the postwar period, despite a sharp drawdown that drove the Air Force from 2.4 million people in 1945 to 303,000 two years later. The Airmen's record was a seminal reason for Air Force racial integration-and it was the first service to integrate. The book ends with the space era, highlighting such astronaut heroes as Fred Gregory, Guy Bluford, and Charles Bolden. An inspiring volume.-Alan Gropman, National Defense University, Washington, DC

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
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8.20(w) x 10.10(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt

Black Wings
Courageous Stories of African Americans in Aviation and Space History

Chapter One

Barnstormer Bessie Coleman Takes to the Air

When the Wright brothers made their successful flight at Kitty Hawk on December 17, 1903. That first aerial trek consisted of a mere 120 feet. It was a modest leap into the air, but it signaled a revolution. Today, the airplane is a powerful and lethal weapon of war. Moreover, airliners routinely transport millions of passengers around the globe. The airplane became identified with adventure and progress. The birth of aviation in the United States, however, coincided with the era of Jim Crow, a climate of formal and informal racial discrimination. African Americans—as a group—found themselves excluded from most spheres of modern technology and from this new exciting realm of aviation. One young woman from Chicago broke this barrier of racial prejudice: Bessie Coleman.

When Bessie Coleman traveled to France in November 1920, her first trip abroad, she was determined to gain a coveted prize: a pilot's license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI). Earning the FAI license brought special distinction, but even more so for a woman. Coleman had traveled from Chicago to a distant aerodrome in Le Crotoy in northern France to inaugurate her unusual flying career.

For Coleman, the quest to become a licensed pilot reflected a deep and abiding passion. As a young African American woman, she endured enormous racial prejudice at home. The prevailing Jim Crow practices in the United States had effectively denied her access to aeronautical training—as it hadfor all aspiring black aviators at the time. She worked tirelessly to raise money for the trip and eventually enrolled in the École d'Aviation des Frères Caudron (the Caudron Brothers' Aviation School). The flight training curriculum at the Caudron Brothers' school was strict and unforgiving, especially for a female cadet who had so much to prove. The FAI license was hers if she could complete the rigorous course of study. Coleman understood this license was a ticket for her to pursue an aviation career in the United States.

The flight school was located near Le Crotoy in the Somme region of northern France. In fact, Bessie's flight training at the Caudron meant she would be flying in the same skies where many great air battles had raged during the Great War (1914-1918). Her flight training consisted of mastering the essential skills to control and maneuver an airplane. The Caudron school used the durable French Nieuport Type 82 trainer, a two-place, open-cockpit biplane. Built of wood and fabric, the Nieuport biplane was highly nimble and forgiving, and therefore ideal for teaching the essential flying maneuvers. Bessie later described these maneuvers as "tail spins, banking and looping the loop."

Coleman earned her FAI license on June 15, 1921. For the young American, this moment represented an important milestone. She took great pride in her achievement, as it had been a long and difficult road from rural Texas to Chicago to France for pilot training. Her passion for flying had overcome numerous challenges and barriers, culminating in a real individual triumph against considerable odds. On a larger level, the FAI license established an important precedent, one that would cast a long shadow for all African Americans seeking to enter aviation in the decades ahead—Bessie Coleman was the first African American woman to gain the coveted FAI license.

Born in Atlanta in 1892, Bessie Coleman grew up in Waxahachie, Texas, a small town located some 30 miles south of Dallas. Her family existed in the poverty of the cotton fields of Texas. Survival in this harsh economic reality depended on hard work with the minimal rewards that came with the sharecropping system. Her father—who was part Native American by heritage—left the family when Bessie was nine years old. One of thirteen children, she spent a considerable amount of time working and caring for her younger siblings. Although she and her family lived in poverty, she took great pleasure in learning. Bessie excelled in school and, in 1910, entered a preparatory school at the Agricultural and Normal College in Langston, Oklahoma. Bessie's sojourn at the college, however, proved short-lived, largely because she lacked funding for tuition and living expenses. Returning to Texas, she resumed the difficult life of a domestic worker, often earning money as a laundress. Finally, in 1915, she left Waxahachie for Chicago to seek her fortune. She stayed with her brother, Walter, and enrolled in beauty school. To make ends meet, she worked tirelessly as cook, maid, and manicurist.

How and why Coleman became interested in flying remains uncertain, but the spark may have come from reading newspaper accounts of aviators and learning of the exploits of a small band of women flyers. Robert S. Abbott, the publisher of the Chicago Defender, befriended her and suggested she learn French and enroll in a flying school in France. Bessie saved her money and subordinated her entire life to the quest to learn to fly. In 1921, after seven months of rigorous training, she obtained the FAI license and in 1922, she returned to France to complete an advanced course of flight training.

In time, Coleman began to break out of the shadows and attract the notice of the black press. Being a legitimate aviatrix, she began to forge her plans for a career in aviation. Since she still lacked the personal finances required to support full-time work in flying, she sought out patrons and supporters. Despite the racial discrimination of the time, she persevered and worked effectively to dramatize her skills as a licensed pilot. Her debut as a stunt pilot came in September 1922, when she appeared at Curtiss Field outside New York City, an event to honor the veterans of the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment that had participated in the American Expeditionary Force in World War I. Her patron, Robert Abbott, played a key role in arranging the air show, proclaiming Coleman as "the world's greatest woman flyer." After enjoying this pivotal triumph, she returned to her hometown of Chicago for an air show at Checkerboard Airdrome (present-day Midway Airport). In Chicago, Coleman enlisted the support of another patron, David L. Behncke, the president of the International Airline Pilots Association.

Black Wings
Courageous Stories of African Americans in Aviation and Space History
. Copyright � by Von Hardesty. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Meet the Author

Von Hardesty is currently a curator in the Division of Aeronautics at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. He has written a number of books, including Red Phoenix: The Rise of Soviet Air Power, 1941–1945; Lindbergh: Flight's Enigmatic Hero; Air Force One: The Aircraft that Shaped the Modern Presidency; Great Aviators and Epic Flights; and Epic Rivalry: The Inside Story of the Soviet and American Space Race. He lives in the metropolitan D.C. area.

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