STEAMFUNK AIRSHIP PILOTS: Black Aviators in the Diesel Age
In this instance of the League of Extraordinary Black People Series, Steamfunk would actually be a misnomer as the first known Black pilots of an airship flew during the Diesel Age, thus these are actually Dieselfunk Airship Pilots, but I figured with Steamfunk picking up…well…steam, and with submissions to the Steamfunk II: Dieselfunk anthology coming soon, Steamfunk Airship Pilots it is.
Many people know of the Tuskegee Airmen – especially since George Lucas’ Red Tails soared onto the silver screen – and their long list of accomplishments over the skies of Europe during the second World War.
The Tuskegee Airmen flew in the segregated 99th Pursuit Squadron and successfully completed several high-risk missions. By the end of WWII, they were the most requested squadron for bomber escort and when the United States Air Force became its own separate entity after World War II, segregation in the Armed forces had completely ended and fighter pilots of all races flew in the same squadrons.
But the Tuskegee Airmen were not the first Black fighter pilots and most certainly not the first Black aviators. There were a few Black fighter pilots in The Great War, now also known as World War I.
So grab your goggles, throw on that bomber jacket and climb into the cockpit of the airship Sweet Chariot with me as we get a bird’s-eye view of those pilots – and other great Black aviators – below:
Eugene J. Bullard
Born in 1894, in the rural South, Bullard grew tired of the racist and oppressive treatment he suffered at the hands of whites and in 1913, at the age of 19, he caught a boat going to Scotland, and then later took up residence in Paris, France.
Bullard made a good life for himself as a boxer and as a musician before joining the French Foreign Legion at the start of WWI.
Bullard did well in the Legion and served with distinction. He later transferred to the Service Aeronautique and eventually came to serve as a Spad pilot in Escadrille SPA 93 and SPA 85. His accomplishments in the Lafayette Flying Corps – the name given to the American volunteer pilots who flew for the French during World War I – include flying over 20 combat missions and two confirmed kills.
The United States, who entered the war in 1917, sought to recruit some of the Americans that were already flying for the Lafayette Flying Corps. Bullard passed the medical examination, but was denied the opportunity to fly for the United States Army Air Corps because he was Black.
When The Great War ended, Bullard returned to France and enjoyed life as a Paris socialite.
When Nazi Germany invaded France, Bullard found himself on the run. He managed to escape France and returned to the United States. Unfortunately, shortly after his arrival, he was subjected to an even more brutal brutal system of oppression than the one he had escaped.
Bullard was never given the respect and admiration in the United States that he had in Europe and he grew ill from the stress. In 1961, he died of stomach cancer.
He is credited with one confirmed victory and two probables in 1916. According to the book, The Imperial Russian Air Service by Durkota, Darcey and Kulikov, this made him a two-time recipient of The Order of St. George for his actions and the first Black aviator credited with shooting down an aircraft in combat, as his victory precedes Bullard’s.
Pliat, born in 1890, was born in Tahiti – known, at the time, as French Polynesia – but at the age of seventeen, moved to Russia with his mother, a nurse, and became a volunteer in the Russian Air Force.
Originally, Pliat served in the Russian Army as a driver, but was soon transferred to the Imperial Air Force, where he performed dual responsibilities as motor mechanic and gunner.
On April 13, 1916, Pliat took part in an air raid on the fortified German flak station, Daudzevas. The aircraft and crew of the Sikorsky Il’ya Muromets took major damage from bullets and shrapnel. Knowing the plane would soon crash, Pliat climbed out of the plane and onto the wing, remained there for nearly an hour, repairing the plane’s damaged engines.
Due to Pliat’s actions, the Ilya Muromets was able to land, despite suffering seventy bullet holes in its body, wings and engines. Pliat was awarded the title of senior non-commissioned officer.
In early November of 1916, Pliat, regarded as an experienced and skilled marksman, requested – and was rewarded – the tail gunner position upon the sophisticated Muromtsev bomber. During a mission in that same month, Pliat proved his skill by shooting down a reported three German fighter planes.
Unfortunately, the fate of Marcel Pliat after November 1916, is unknown as most records of the Imperial Air Force were destroyed when the Bolsheviks came into power in 1917.
Ahmet Ali Celikten
Born in 1883 in Smyrna (present day İzmir), Celikten’s mother Zenciye Emine Hanım, was of Yoruba ancestry and his father, Ali Bey, of Afro-Arab ancestry.
Celikten aimed to become a naval sailor and entered the Naval Technical School, Haddehâne Mektebi in 1904.
In 1908, he graduated as a First Lieutenant (“Mülâzım-ı evvel”) and then went to aviation courses in the Naval Flight School (“Deniz Tayyare Mektebi”), earning his wings in 1914 at Yeşilköy, which makes Celikten the first Black military pilot in aviation history.
At twelve years old, Coleman began attending the Missionary Baptist Church in Texas and, after graduating, embarked on a journey to Oklahoma to attend the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University (Langston University), where she completed only one term due to financial constraints.
In 1915, at 23 years of age, Coleman moved to Chicago, where she lived with her brothers and worked as a manicurist.
Not long after her move to Chicago, Coleman began listening to and reading stories of World War I pilots, which sparked her interest in aviation.
Because flying schools in the United States denied her entry, she taught herself French, moved to France and enrolled in the well-known Caudron Brother’s School of Aviation.
In 1922, After just seven months of training, Coleman broke barriers and became the world’s first Black woman to earn a pilot’s license.
Desiring to start a flying school for African Americans when she returned to the U.S., Coleman used her aerial skills to earn money, entertaining crowds with her amazing stunt flying, parachuting, barnstorming and aerial tricks. Also in 1922, Coleman broke yet another barrier, performing the first public flight by an African-American woman in the United States.
Tragically, on April 30, 1926, Coleman was killed in an accident during a rehearsal for an aerial show. She was only 33 years old.
Black flyers founded the Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs, right after her death and the famed The Bessie Aviators organization was founded by Black women pilots in 1975.
In 1990, Chicago renamed a road near O’Hare International Airport for Bessie Coleman. That same year, St. Louis’ International Airport unveiled a mural honoring Black Americans in Flight, including Bessie Coleman.
In 1995, the U.S. Postal Service honored Bessie Coleman with a commemorative stamp.
In October, 2002, Bessie Coleman was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in New York.
J. Herman Banning
And he was right.
Banning studied electrical engineering at Iowa State College for a little more than a year after which he became “air-minded.” He took up lessons, learning to fly at Raymond Fisher’s Flying Field in Des Moines, Iowa and obtained his aviator license from the U. S. Dept. of Commerce.
Banning operated the J. H. Banning Auto Repair Shop in Ames from 1922 to 1928 but in 1929, left Ames to live in Los Angeles, where he became the chief pilot for the Bessie Coleman Aero Club.
Banning and another Black pilot, Thomas C. Allen became the first Black pilots to fly coast-to-coast – from Los Angeles to Long Island, NY – in 1932. Using a plane pieced together from junkyard parts, they made the 3,300 mile trip in less than 42 hours aloft. However, the trip actually required 21 days to complete because the pilots had to raise money each time they stopped.
Banning was a passenger in a biplane, sitting in the front open cockpit without controls, during a San Diego air show. The Navy pilot at the controls, trying to impress his more accomplished passenger, pulled the nose of the tiny plane up into a steep climb. The plane stalled and fell into a fatal spin in front of hundreds of horrified spectators.
Oscar Wayman Holmes
Oscar Wayman Holmes, who never really thought of himself as a pioneer, actually broke three color barriers, becoming the first African American air traffic controller in 1941 and a year later becoming the first commissioned Black officer in the U.S. Navy and the first Black Navy pilot.
Holmes never set out to break down racial barriers – he just wanted to fly.
Born on January 31, 1916, in Dunbar, West Virginia, Holmes attended a segregated school in nearby Charleston. Upon graduating from Garnet High School in 1932, he entered West Virginia State College, a land-grant institution for Black citizens of segregated West Virginia and earned a B.S. in chemistry in 1936.
With a graduate assistantship funded by the National Youth Administration, Holmes earned a M.S. in chemistry from Ohio State University three years later.
A superb student, Holmes’ graduate research became the basis for a coauthored article in the Journal of the American Chemical Society – a rare feat for a master’s student. Although he later claimed to hate chemistry, Holmes taught the subject for three years at Claflin College in Orangeburg, South Carolina.
Tired of the low paying teaching job, he subsequently found a part-time position as a water and fuel analyst for a power company in Erie, Pennsylvania.
While in Erie, Holmes entered the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP). Established in 1939 by the federal government, the CPTP introduced young Americans to aviation. Holmes successfully completed the program and earned his private pilot’s certificate. Shortly thereafter, he spotted a civil service job announcement at the Erie post office that put him on the path to a new career. The Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) was looking for air traffic controller applicants with a college degree and a private pilot’s license.
In 1941, once he completed his training, the CAA offered Holmes a position as an assistant controller at the New York airway traffic control center with an annual salary of $1,800 per year. After he accepted the position, the CAA required Holmes to fill out a questionnaire that included a question on race.
Although he got the job and excelled in it, he was denied a promotion due to his race. Frustrated by this, Holmes applied to the U.S. Navy in 1942. The Navy was offering commissions to men who had pilots’ licenses and 100 hours of flying time to train as flight instructors and ferry pilots.
Although he did not have the requisite flying time, Holmes applied and soon had an ensign’s commission. The Navy did not know it had commissioned an African-American because of Holmes’ light complexion (The Navy did not knowingly commission a Black officer until March 1944.)
At Colgate University, where the Navy had enrolled Holmes in the War Training Service Program, newly commissioned officers had to submit, among other things, a birth certificate. At this point, Holmes later explained, “they realized they now had commissioned a Negro in their Navy . . . They didn’t know what to do about it, and I suppose rather than make a fuss . . . and try to get rid of me they said, ‘Oh, we’ve got him now, we’ll just let him stay.’”
Finishing flight instructor training at the New Orleans Naval Air Station, Holmes became the first Black flying officer. The Navy assigned him first to sit on the Aviation Cadet Selection Board and then in 1944 as a ferry pilot for the Naval Air Transport Service, Air Ferry Squadron III. The Navy treated Holmes as any other officer, which was unique at the time since the military was segregated. Black sailors served in the “Black” Navy, and Black aviators in the Army Air Corps served in segregated units and were not allowed in officers’ clubs. As Holmes explained, “The Navy knew I was black, and I knew I was black, but not many other people knew it.”
After the war, Holmes returned to his job at the CAA’s New York airway traffic center, finally receiving his promotion as well as a second promotion six months later. In 1950, he became a senior controller. While at his job in New York, Holmes attended Brooklyn Law School as a part-time student. He graduated with a bachelor of laws (LL.B.) degree in 1954. He earned a master of laws (LL.M.) the following year. Admitted to the New York State bar, he opened a part-time law practice. He gave up his practice when he accepted a position at the Federal Aviation Agency’s headquarters in June 1959. There he advanced his career and retired as a GS-15 hearing officer in 1973.
The Tuskegee Airmen
Due to racial discrimination, African-American servicemen were not allowed to learn to fly until 1941, when African American college graduates were selected for what the Army called “an experiment” – the creation of the segregated 99th Fighter Squadron, which trained at an airfield adjacent to Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute.
The experiment involved training Black pilots and ground support members who originally formed the 99th Pursuit Squadron. The squadron, quickly dubbed the Tuskegee Airmen, was activated on March 22, 1941, and redesignated as the 99th Fighter Squadron on May 15, 1942.
For every Black pilot in the Tuskegee Airmen, there were ten Black civilian, officer and enlisted men and women on ground support duty.
Charles Alfred Anderson, one of the first African-American’s to earn his pilot’s license, became the first flight instructor when the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) was organized at Tuskegee Institute in October 1939. The army decided to model its training program on the CPTP and hired Anderson to teach the Tuskegee pilots.
When Eleanor Roosevelt visited Tuskegee Army Air Field in 1941, she insisted on taking a ride in an airplane with a Black pilot at the controls. Roosevelt’s pilot was Charles Anderson. She then insisted that her flight with Anderson be photographed and the film developed immediately so that she could take the photographs back to Washington when she left the field. Roosevelt used this photograph as part of her campaign to convince her husband, President F.D. Roosevelt, to activate the participation of the Tuskegee Airmen in North Africa and in the European Theater and in June 1943, the Tuskegee Airmen entered into combat over North Africa.
The Airmen exemplified courage, skill and dedication in combat. They flew P-39-, P-40-, P-47- and P-51-type aircraft in more than 15,000 sorties, completing over 1,500 missions during the war. They never lost an escorted bomber to enemy fighters, a record no other escort unit could claim.
When the war ended, the Tuskegee Airmen returned home with one hundred and fifty Distinguished Flying Crosses, Legions of Merit and the Red Star of Yugoslavia. The group was deactivated in May 1946 but its success would contribute to the eventual integration of the United States military in 1948.