“Father of Black Aviation” Honored with Stamp

Chief Civilian Flight Instructor Charles Alfred Anderson took Eleanor Roosevelt on an hour-long flight during her 1941 visit to the Tuskegee Institute. Here they are pictured aboard the aircraft shortly after landing. Photo: Airforce Historical Research Agency.

Chief Civilian Flight Instructor Charles Alfred Anderson took Eleanor Roosevelt on an hour-long flight during her 1941 visit to the Tuskegee Institute. Here they are pictured aboard the aircraft shortly after landing. Photo: Airforce Historical Research Agency.

March 24, 2014 (Scottsdale, AZ)

C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson, commonly referred to as the “Father of Black Aviation,” or the “Charles Lindbergh of Black Aviation,” was honored in March when he was immortalized on a new stamp issued by the U.S. Postal Service. The Anderson stamp is the 15th in the postal service’s Distinguished American Series.

Anderson, born February 9, 1907, was known for his record-breaking flights that inspired other African Americans to become pilots.

The Beginnings

Anderson always had a passion for airplanes. As a young child living with his grandmother in Virginia, Anderson would always be out searching for airplanes. After moving to live with his parents in Pennsylvania, he dreamed of flying and getting his Private Pilot’s License, but in those days, flight schools wouldn’t offer flight training to blacks. Anderson came up with a plan of his own. He was able to borrow $2,700 from members of the community that saw his passion for flying, and bought himself an airplane. It was a Velie Monocoupe; a wooden frame and dope-fabric covered monoplane. He was eventually allowed to join a flying club where he got tips on how to fly from some of the pilots and pretty soon had taught himself to takeoff and land. As Anderson later recalled, he learned to fly by reading books, getting some help from a few friendly white pilots and, in his own words, “fooling around with” the plane. By 1929, he had taught himself well enough, against all odds, to obtain a Private Pilot’s License.

Anderson eventually found an instructor, Ernst Buehl, to help him qualify for an air transport, or a commercial license. Buehl, a recent immigrant from Germany and owner of a flying school near Philadelphia, helped him refine his techniques and even persuade a federal examiner to let Anderson take the commercial pilot’s test. When Anderson secured the license in 1932, he was the only African American in the nation qualified to serve as a flight instructor or to fly commercially. Later, Anderson was the first African American pilot to fly a round-trip transcontinental flight giving him the nickname, “Charles Lindbergh of black aviation.”

Tuskegee Airmen

Anderson was known for his role in training the Famous World War II fighter squadron, the Tuskegee Airmen of Tuskegee, Alabama. As the war unfolded in 1939, legislation was enacted that allowed civilian blacks to enroll into flight training for the military. Anderson was recruited by the Tuskegee Institute as the Chief Civilian Flight Instructor to train black pilots to be part of an all black pursuit squadron. He soon earned his nickname, “Chief.” In 1941, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited the school and asked to take a flight with Anderson. The First Lady told Anderson she had always heard that “colored people couldn’t fly,” but it appeared that he could. “I’m just going to have to take a flight with you,” she said. Anderson took the First Lady on a scenic tour of the flight school from the air in a Piper Cub airplane.

The War Department’s plans for a black pursuit squadron took shape when ground crews of the 99th Pursuit Squadron (later renamed the 99th Fighter Squadron) began their training in March 1941. The first class of black pilots graduated in March 1942, and soon thereafter, the nation’s first all-black military aviation unit became fully manned. In 1943, the 99th of the U.S. Army Air Forces began combat operations in North Africa. Along with members of several other all-black flying units whose pilots began their training under Anderson at Moton Field, the 99th are now commonly known as the Tuskegee Airmen.

During the war, the Tuskegee Airmen escorted heavy bombers on hundreds of missions in the European theater. They flew thousands of sorties, destroyed more than a hundred German aircraft, and received scores of Distinguished Flying Crosses. Their professionalism and effectiveness in combat were pivotal in the newly independent U.S. Air Force becoming the nation’s first branch of the armed services to desegregate in 1949.

For the rest of his life after the war, Anderson pursued his passion for flying and teaching others to fly. In 1967, he helped organize Negro Airmen International to encourage interest in aviation among African-American youth. Anderson died at his Tuskegee home in 1996 at the age of   89.

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