The first black U.S. military aviators were the Tuskegee Airmen, trained in Tuskegee, Alabama. In addition to the pilots, the navigators, bombardiers, maintenance and support staff, instructors, and others were known collectively as Tuskegee Airmen.
The military chose the Tuskegee Institute—today Tuskegee University—to train pilots for the formerly all-white U.S. Army Air Corps. The segregated unit was created in response to pressure from black newspapers and a lawsuit by civil rights organizations, which had sought full integration of the armed forces.
The Tuskegee Airmen flew combat operations and heavy bomber escort missions, initially with Curtiss P–40 Warhawks and eventually with P–51 Mustangs—the airplane for which they are best known. The pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group painted the noses and rudders of their P–51s red, and the group became known as the Red Tails.
At the war’s conclusion, many of the Tuskegee Airmen went on to careers in the military. In 1950, George S. Roberts, deputy commander of the 332nd Fighter Group, became the first black man to command a racially integrated unit in the new U.S. Air Force. He retired a colonel.
“If they did not demonstrate that they were far superior to the members of the six non-black fighter escort groups of the Fifteenth Air Force with which they served, they certainly demonstrated that they were not inferior to them, either,” said Daniel L. Haulman, chief of the Organizational Histories Branch of the Air Force Historical Research Agency.
Stories such as this can be found in Freedom to Fly: AOPA and the History of General Aviation in America, celebrating the eightieth anniversary of AOPA, written by AOPA writers, now available for $39.95.
Buy it online: aopa.org/freedomtoflybook