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Aviation Pioneers

What is an aviation pioneer?

An aviation pioneer is someone who sees potential, an innovator who is willing to try new things, and pushes boundaries to advance a cause or idea or break a record.
Impact Aviation Pioneers Transportation Milestones FAQs History

Charles Lindbergh  

Charles Lindbergh first became interested in flight after World War I and became a barnstorming pilot in the Midwest. In 1924 he enlisted in the Army Air Service and became a reserve officer in the Missouri National Guard. The next year he was hired as chief pilot for the Robertson Aircraft Corporation, which flew the air mail between St. Louis and Chicago.

Lindbergh’s historic solo transatlantic flight in the Spirit of St. Louis in 1927 changed the face of aviation and brought him international honors and acclaim. His subsequent air tours in the Spirit of the United States and Latin America, and his work as an advisor for Pan American Airways and Transcontinental Air Transport, helped establish U.S. transcontinental and intercontinental air route systems.

Bessie Coleman  

Coleman broke through the headwinds of racial prejudice as a barnstorming pilot at air shows in the 1920s. As a pilot, Bessie Coleman quickly established a benchmark for her race and gender in the 1920s. She toured the country as a barnstormer, performing aerobatics at air shows.

Her flying career, however, proved to be short-lived. She died in a plane crash in 1926, her untimely death coming just a year before Charles Lindbergh made his historic transatlantic flight in the Spirit of St. Louis. For the African American community, Bessie Coleman became an enduring symbol of how a talented and highly motivated person could seek out a career in aviation.

James Herman Banning  

Flying from Los Angeles to New York, Banning set a new record for black pilots and paved the way for other pioneering black aviation record setters. Long-distance flying offered a dramatic way for African American pilots to showcase their flying skills.

James Herman Banning emerged as one of the most talented barnstorming pilots. In 1932 Banning and Thomas C. Allen completed the first transcontinental flight by black airmen.Banning and other long-distance pilots used their flying exploits to promote airmindedness in the African American community. Each successful flight demonstrated the expanding skills of black pilots and promoted the idea that aviation should be open to all, regardless of race.

Amelia Earhart  

Born in Atchison, Kansas, in 1897, Amelia Earhart attended her first flying exhibition in 1918 while serving as a Red Cross nurse’s aide in Canada. She took her first flight in 1920 and declared, “As soon as we left the ground, I knew I myself had to fly.”

Earhart soloed in 1921 and the next year bought her first airplane. She wasted no time in setting a record, flying higher than any woman ever had before. Earhart would set many more records, including two in this red Lockheed Vega that made her famous around the world. No other female aviator has had Amelia Earhart’s instant worldwide fame. Committed to aviation, she promoted “airmindedness” at a time when most people were skeptical about airplanes as a form of transportation. Her confident personal and media presence reached millions in the 1920s and 1930s and still resonates today.

Willa Brown  

Willa Brown was the first African American woman to earn a pilot license (1938) and a commercial license (1939). Brown was also the first African American woman to become an officer in the Illinois Civil Air Patrol (CAP).

Pioneer aviator Willa Brown played a prominent role in Coffey’s Chicago flying club, offering a role model for young African American women. The success of the Coffey aviation students led to the eventual admission of blacks into the Army Air Forces through the War Training Service Program (WTS), providing a pool of instructors and trainees at Tuskegee Army Air Field.

Lt. James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle  

Jimmy Doolittle was one of the great aviation pioneers of the 1920s and 1930s. As an air racer, he was the only winner of the Schneider, Bendix, and Thompson Trophy competitions, considered by many the most important races of the era. As a test pilot with a doctoral degree in aeronautical engineering, he was at the forefront of new technology.

By the end of the 1930s, Doolittle was a household name. After America entered World War II, he planned and led the first attack on Japan, the famous “Doolittle Raid,” on April 18, 1942, for which he received the Medal of Honor.

Benjamin O. Davis Jr.  

Davis led the Tuskegee airmen during World War II in air combat over North Africa and Italy and long-range bomber escort missions over Nazi Germany.

The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is linked directly to the life and career of Benjamin O. Davis Jr. The son of an Army general and a 1936 graduate of West Point, Davis was a member of the first class of five cadets to earn their wings at Tuskegee. He was selected to lead the new 99th Pursuit Squadron, the Army Air Corps’ first all-black air unit.

After the war, Davis continued his military career in the newly independent and integrated U.S. Air Force. He achieved the rank of lieutenant general and played a key leadership role during the Korean and Vietnam wars.

Auguste Piccard  

Swiss physicist Auguste Piccard conceived and designed a sealed, pressurized gondola that could safely carry him into the upper atmosphere to conduct scientific studies. In 1932 Piccard and assistant Max Cosyns ascended in the gondola to 52,500 feet. Their flight attracted wide attention and inspired other researchers to plan high-altitude flights.

“We had to be careful not to release too much gas, otherwise we would have descended like a stone.”  – Auguste Piccard

William J. Powell Jr.  

Powell dreamed of African Americans finding their rightful place in the air age as pilots and mechanics, a vision he called “Black Wings.” Leading a small group of black air enthusiasts in Los Angeles during the 1920s, he established the Bessie Coleman Flying Club and sponsored the first all-black air show.

Powell also called for the full participation of African Americans in aviation as pilots, mechanics, and business leaders. To achieve this end, he wrote his visionary book, Black Wings, produced a documentary film, and worked tirelessly to mobilize African American youth for aviation.
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