The Man Called Brown Condor: The Forgotten History of an African American Fighter Pilot

The Man Called Brown Condor: The Forgotten History of an African American Fighter Pilot

by Thomas E. Simmons


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How did a black child, growing up in segregationist Mississippi during the early 1900s, become the commander of the Imperial Ethiopian Air Corps during the brutal Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935? In this gripping, never-before-told tale, biographer Thoma

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781620872178
Publisher: Skyhorse
Publication date: 02/07/2013
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.20(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Thomas E. Simmons grew up in Mississippi and attended the Marion Military Institute, the U. S. Naval Academy, the University of Southern Mississippi, and the University of Alabama. He served as commercial captain of a seventy-foot sailing vessel, has been a pilot since the age of sixteen, has flown professionally, and participated in air shows flying aerobatics in open-cockpit biplanes. In 1960, he served as an artillery officer in Korea. He and his wife live in Gulfport, Mississippi.

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Africa, 1954

On March 14, 1954, A young Ethiopian in a rural village lay badly injured. An urgent radio message requesting delivery of whole blood and medical supplies was received at the Lideta airport, Addis Ababa.

A handsome, trim, fifty-one-year-old American, former commander of the Imperial Ethiopian Air Force, volunteered for the mercy flight that would cross some of the most rugged terrain in all of Africa. It would be a fateful decision. His name was John Charles Robinson.

As the colonel walked from his flying school office toward the L-5 Stinson, Biachi Bruno, an Italian engineer, caught up with him and asked to go along as copilot. With a nod of his head and a smile, Robinson granted the request. Biachi read the smile as a silent recognition of the irony of the former Ethiopian colonel and an Italian aviator flying together. Less than twenty years before, Italian pilots had tried their best to kill the colonel.

The flight in the small, single-engine former US Army observation plane would take two hours. By land, in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, the same trip could take two days or longer — and that was if the roads and trails had not been washed out or blocked by landslides. Even in the mid-twentieth century, a donkey could be the most reliable mode of surface travel in much of the mountainous country.

The two men waited impatiently until a packet containing two units of whole blood, surgical supplies, morphine, and bandages arrived from the hospital. Biachi loaded the packet into the baggage compartment behind the rear seat of the two-place tandem Stinson, climbed in, and fastened his seatbelt. Colonel Robinson took the front seat, started the engine, taxied to the runway, and conducted the pre-takeoff check of engine, instruments, and flight controls. Satisfied, he ran the engine up to takeoff power and released the brakes.

Because the capital city is situated at an elevation of 7,600 feet above sea level, the 185 horsepower L-5 climbed slowly in the thin air. They would have to reach a minimum altitude of ten thousand feet to clear the ragged ridges, saddles, and passes that lay along the route between mountain peaks reaching above fourteen thousand feet, some snowcapped year-round. Because the snow existed near the equator it was called "tropical ice."

Air travel across the rugged terrain of Ethiopia is and has always been the kind pilots find extremely demanding and risky. Even in the 1950s, there were few modern radio aids to aerial navigation. The colonel did not need them. He knew the rough terrain of Ethiopia better than any pilot alive. Twenty years earlier, his life had depended upon his knowledge of the minutiae of valleys, streams, mountains, lowlands, deserts, rock outcrops, and trails. Biachi Bruno had asked to go with Robinson to gain such navigational knowledge of the varied Ethiopian landscape from the man he considered the master pilot of Ethiopia. Such knowledge can still mean life or death to pilots navigating through the Simien, Chercher, or Aranna Mountains in the Western Highlands, the Rift Valley, or the Ahmar or Mendebo Mountains of the Eastern Highlands. In the event of a crash, survivors can die of thirst or starvation before they can walk out or be found and rescued.

The two men reached their destination and landed safely on a short, flat, slightly uphill strip of dirt road. They handed the medical supplies to a waiting barefoot runner from the local village. Leaving a trail of dust behind its bone-jarring takeoff roll down the stone-strewn road, the little plane lifted into the air. After he turned on course for home, the colonel wiggled the control stick and lifted both hands into the air, a signal for Bruno to take over. The Italian was delighted. He put his right hand on the rear stick and rested his left on the throttle. Occasionally he peeked around one side or the other of the colonel sitting in front to check the instrument panel for airspeed, altitude, compass heading, and oil pressure.

Robinson relaxed, his gaze sweeping the horizon from right to left. I never tire of the view from up here. Mile by mile, the terrain slipped beneath them. How good this rugged, savage, beautiful country has been to me. Flying had been his life. He had read somewhere that flight was perhaps mankind's greatest technical achievement — "the dream of countless millions of man's ancestors who for eons could only stare at the sky and wish." Even so, John knew the plane was but a tiny, fragile, man-made toy winging above the awesome, God-made Ethiopian expanse of jagged, mountainous, plateaus, lush jungles, and deserts of volcanic sand. Here and there, the terrain was ribboned with silver streams that tumbled into wild rivers coursing through falls and rapids eventually to calm and spill out onto valleys, nourishing the fertile plateaus, seeping into desert sands and simply disappearing. Three of the rivers — the Lesser Abay, the Reb, and the Gumara — feed Lake Tana, source of the Blue Nile. Robinson had flown over it all.

"Colonel," Biachi Bruno asked, "when did you first know you wanted to fly?"

The question interrupted Robinson's reverie and propelled him through time to a sliver of beach where the Gulf of Mexico lapped onto the shore of Mississippi.

* * *

The year was 1910. An airplane with a wooden float in place of landing gear, circled over the town of Gulfport, touched down in the shallow water of the Mississippi Sound, and taxied to the beach at the foot of Twenty-Third Avenue. The pilot, John Moisant, usually flew his Blériot monoplane with which he had recently won an air race in Paris. He had shipped it to New Orleans to race the Blériot against a Packard automobile. But he borrowed the float-equipped biplane to visit the young Mississippi town of Gulfport, developed twelve years earlier by Captain Joseph T. Jones, a former Yankee soldier turned oilman from Pennsylvania. Moisant's interest lay not with the town, but rather with Captain Jones's daughter, Grace, whom he had met at a gala in New Orleans some seventy-five miles to the west.

It had not taken long for a large crowd of townsfolk to gather in a semicircle around the flying contraption. John had borrowed the latest model of a Curtiss pusher biplane. It was a strange-looking contrivance composed of a fragile, wire-braced, wood-and-bamboo frame with wings and control surfaces covered in varnished linen, and it was powered by a rear-facing engine mounted behind the pilot's seat. The wheels had been removed and a wooden float attached to the fuselage. Two smaller floats, one mounted under each lower wing, kept the wingtips from dipping into the water.

Two young women, late arrivals, pushed their way through the crowd and approached the intrepid flyer. He was standing by his machine answering questions from the curious crowd.

"Hello again, John," Grace Jones said, and without giving Moisant time to answer continued, "I want you to meet my friend, Elsie Gary ... and we have come to take a ride in your flying machine."

Nodding to Elsie, Moisant replied, "I don't know about that, Miss Jones. What would your father say?"

"Come on, John, take us flying." Grace smiled. "Please."

Elsie agreed. "My daddy might kill me, but I want to go, too."

"Listen, you two," Moisant said, "Captain Jones will hang me for sure if I do."

"You promised, John," Grace said, and she touched John's arm. She had the kind of eyes that could turn men into putty.

"All right, Grace, but I can't take but one of you at a time. Who goes first?"

The toss of a coin decided Elsie Gary would become the first known air passenger in the state of Mississippi. (There is a photograph to prove it.) Elsie climbed up on the plane and sat on little more than a board fastened next to the pilot's seat on top of the lower wing.

Among the growing number of excited spectators, there was a seven-year-old black boy standing at the back of the crowd clutching his mother's hand. From her vantage point, the small, stout woman could see only the aircraft's upper wing above the heads of the crowd. The little boy stood on his tiptoes but could only see the backs of the people in front of him. He squatted down and tried to look between their legs to no avail.

At Moisant's direction, a half-dozen excited volunteers took off their shoes, rolled up the legs of their pants, pushed the plane into water just deep enough for the craft to float freely, and swung it around to face away from the beach. John instructed them to hold tightly to the wing struts and warned them not to let go until he gave the signal. He switched on the magneto, set the throttle, waded around behind the wing, ducked under a tail boom, and hand-cranked the wooden propeller. The warm engine roared to life with a burst of black smoke from the exhaust.

The startled little boy jumped behind his mother and peeked around her skirt. He was not alone in retreat. A great many adults had quickly backed away. Moisant calmly sloshed through the shallow water around the lower wing and climbed into the pilot's seat.

Satisfied all was well, John checked to see if his passenger was ready. "Miss Gary, are you all set?" he yelled. Sitting on the quivering machine, holding on for dear life, too scared to speak, she bravely nodded her head. With a crowd-startling roar, Moisant throttled up the engine. The pickup ground crew struggled to hold the plane while spectators on the beach scattered from the blast of the propeller. John signaled the men to let go.

Blowing swirls of spray in its wake, the plane waddled away from the beach. Gaining speed across water rippled by a gentle southeast breeze, the fragile craft at last lifted into the air. Looking more graceful in the sky than it had on the ground, it circled over the harbor and turned back toward the crowd waiting on the beach.

Down it came, only fifty feet above the sand. Those in the crowd gaped open-mouthed up at the fantastic machine as it flashed over them at the incredible speed of forty-five miles an hour. The wide-eyed little boy stared up in awe. He broke from his mother's grip and ran down the beach with hands stretched high toward the flying machine. There was joy in his heart, wonder in his eyes, and laughter on his lips. The black child had found his impossible dream. His name was John Charles Robinson.

* * *

Returning from his reverie the colonel answered Bruno's question: "I made up my mind that I was going to fly when I was seven years old." He paused, then added, "But for a black child in Mississippi, it wasn't an easy dream to follow."

Robinson's attention quickly focused on the present. What had broken his thoughts? He wasn't sure, but his sharply honed pilot's senses were registering mild alarm. Vibrations in the cockpit were vaguely different from what they had been moments before. He scanned the engine instruments for clues.

Bruno, concentrating on flying to impress his old instructor, had yet to notice anything unusual. They had just cleared the last high ridge and started the long decent toward the high plateau. Addis Ababa was barely visible in the distance.

The engine noise changed faintly. The tachometer needle began to wiggle slightly. Now Bruno took notice. He opened his mouth to speak, but the engine spoke first. A loud metal-to-metal pounding sent both pilots to red alert.

Robinson reached for the fuel selector and switched tanks, checked both magnetos and the fuel mixture setting, and pulled the throttle back to reduce stress on the engine. The pounding, like a trip hammer on boilerplate, could be felt through the control stick, rudder petals, and airframe. The shock-mounted instrument panel was vibrating violently.

John yelled, "I've got it," and took control, got on the radio, called Addis Ababa, declared an emergency, and gave their position.

Bruno tried to sound calm, but there was fear in his voice. "What now, my friend?"

The colonel turned the plane in a gentle bank to the right and then left, searching the ground below, behind, and ahead for a place to land — any place free of boulders, jagged rocks, and steeply sloped terrain.

"We can try to put it down now, but we don't stand a chance in hell of doing it in one piece. With a little luck, the engine will hold together for a few more minutes and we'll make it."

"And if we're not so lucky?" Bruno asked.

The colonel answered, "Well then, my little momma might turn out to be right after all these years."

"Your mother?"

"Yeah," Robinson replied. "She told me a black man had no business fooling around with airplanes."


Mississippi, 1910

THE SEVEN-YEAR-OLD BLACK CHILD WAS ALMOST UNCONTROLLABLE as he and his mother walked west on 13th Street, crossed the Gulf & Ship Island (G&SI) railroad tracks, and turned north toward the Big Quarter, the segregated neighborhood where many black families lived. He jumped and skipped and made engine noises with his arms outstretched like wings, mimicking the airplane he had just seen.

"Johnny! You calm down! You're gonna embarrass your momma right out here on the street."

His mother's appeals went unheeded. The child was too excited to calm down. "Wait till I tell Daddy I seen a real airplane fly!"

Later that afternoon, Johnny sat on the front steps of his house waiting for his father to get home. The dirt road soon filled with men returning from their day's work. John could always pick his stepfather out of the crowd. Charles Cobb walked with a pronounced limp, the result of an accident at the G&SI locomotive shop where he worked. Johnny spotted him and ran to tell him, with wide-eyed excitement, about the flying machine he had seen that day.

When the two reached the house, Johnny's sister, Bertha, was playing in the front yard. Mr. Cobb picked her up and carried her into the house to join Celeste in the kitchen for supper. Charles Cobb listened to Johnny talk about the airplane and how it had carried people up in the sky.

"That thing flew out over the water and come back right over my head. It scared the devil out of a bunch of seagulls. Scared me too when it first started. Near 'bout blew down some peoples standing behind it. I bet most nobody in Mississippi seen anything like that. I'm gonna fly in one of those things some day, Daddy."

Charles Cobb listened to the excited little boy and wondered if one day he would have to try and explain to the child that a black man had about as much chance of flying as he himself had of being an engineer for the railroad. He tried to remember the moment he had finally accepted the fact that he would never drive a steam locomotive on the main line. Even today the dream haunted him. That's why he had become a railroad mechanic, working his way up from laborer and gandy dancer. If he couldn't drive, one he would keep them running. They still thrilled him. He must have been about Johnny's age when he saw a steam locomotive come thundering by for the first time. He had been sitting on his daddy's wagon when the huge puffing monster with its big driving wheels roared past the crossing, scaring his daddy's mule nearly out of its hide. The engineer had waved and Charles Cobb knew that somehow steam locomotives would be a part of his life. He knew everything there was to know about them, every part. To him, a locomotive with steam up was like a giant, live, breathing thing, powerful and mighty and thrilling to the bone.

When there was some unusual problem with an engine at the shop, his boss would come to him to fix it. Mr. Cobb knew how to drive a steam locomotive; he drove them out of the shop, across the roundtable, and down the siding to wait for an engineer to come along to put it in service and make up a train, but that was not the same as climbing up into a cab, opening the throttle, and highballing down the main line pulling a string of cars toward some destination miles away. Now he was worried, saddened really, that his boy might be haunted by a dream that would remain a dream.

John Robinson was born in Carrabelle, Florida, in 1903, coincidentally the same year the Wright brothers made the world's first powered airplane flight. Following the accidental death of his father, his mother, Celeste Robinson, moved to Gulfport, Mississippi, with her baby boy, John, and his four-year-old sister, Bertha, to live with her father. At the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, Celeste met Charles Cobb. It was not long before they were married. Mr. Cobb was employed in a good paying job at the G&SI engine shop and roundhouse at Gulfport, the southern terminus of the line that hauled Mississippi timber and cotton to the port. He was a gentle man that had taken to the baby boy and little girl as if they were his own. He was rewarded with the love of the little children who worshiped the man who would be the only father they would ever know. Although Charles Cobb wanted to adopt the children and give them his name, Celeste insisted that they keep their real father's name. In Johnny's case, whenever someone asked about his name Celeste would answer that Robinson was his dead father's name, then smile and say, "but Charles was for his stepfather, Mr. Charles Cobb." No one ever knew if that was true, but the name by which the world would know him was John Charles Robinson.


Excerpted from "The Man Called Brown Condor"
by .
Copyright © 2013 Thomas E. Simmons.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Map ix

Chapter 1 Africa, 1954 1

Chapter 2 Mississippi, 1910 9

Chapter 3 Northbound 19

Chapter 4 Taste the Wind 29

Chapter 5 Chicago, 1927 55

Chapter 6 But Will It Fly? 61

Chapter 7 A Twenty-Dollar Bet 71

Chapter 8 Hummingbird 85

Chapter 9 Tall Tree, Short Cotton 89

Chapter 10 A World Away 101

Chapter 11 Lonely Voyage 109

Chapter 12 Marseilles 115

Chapter 13 Train From Djibouti 123

Chapter 14 Addis Ababa, 1935 131

Chapter 15 Rocks in the Clouds 143

Chapter 16 Audience with the Emperor 151

Chapter 17 Gathered at the River, 1935 159

Chapter 18 Dogs and Rabbits 177

Chapter 19 A Lonely War 191

Chapter 20 Sportsmen and Warriors 201

Chapter 21 Stranger to Peace 213

Chapter 22 Reluctant Hero 221

Chapter 23 Toward Home 233

Chapter 24 Gulfport, 1936 245

Chapter 25 Hard Choices 259

Chapter 26 Once More to Africa 271

Epilogue 285

Acknowledgments 289

Bibliography 292

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