Black History Month is a time dedicated to recognizing and celebrating the achievements of African Americans and their role in United States history. During this month of remembrance, Gleim honors several prominent African-American aviation pioneers.
Bessie Coleman was the first African-American and Native-American woman to hold a pilot license. She was initially inspired to be a pilot after hearing stories from her brother in the military about French women who were able to fly. Coleman was rejected by every flight school she applied for in the U.S., so she decided to apply to flight schools in France. She was finally accepted at the Caudron Brothers School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France, where she trained before returning to the U.S. to teach and perform aerobatics for large crowds. Bessie was well known for two things: dangerous aerobatic stunts (like “loop-the-loops”) and being a strong advocate for racial equality. During a test flight with her mechanic, William Wills, on April 30, 1926, a loose wrench got stuck in the engine of the aircraft, making it impossible to control. The aircraft fell out of the sky, and neither Coleman nor Wills survived.
Captain Marlon Green
In 1957, 28 year-old Marlon D. Green, who had flown the B-26 and SA-16 Albatross in the Air Force, was inspired by a newspaper article he read regarding a pledge by 18 U.S. airlines to practice non-discrimination in hiring. He applied to many airlines and was rejected but eventually was invited to an interview with Continental Airlines after leaving his race unchecked in his application. Green made it to the final round of applicants before being turned down, even though he was a more experienced pilot than those who were hired. Green sued the company and fought them in the U.S. Supreme Court for six years before winning the “Colorado Anti-Discrimination Commission v. Continental Airlines” case. Green was hired by Continental Airlines in 1965, became a captain in 1966, and flew for the airline until he retired 14 years later. As Continental CEO Jeff Smisek said during a ceremony naming the company’s new Boeing 737 in Green’s honor, “He sued us. We fought him. We fought him for six years….and on behalf of my 41,000 co-workers, I’m so glad that he won.”
Captain David Harris
Born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, Captain David Harris graduated with a B.S. in Education from Ohio State University and was the first African-American commercial pilot hired by a major U.S. airline. He was also the first to be promoted to Captain. In the early 1960s, while Captain Marlon Green was battling Continental Airlines in the Supreme Court, Harris was a member of the U.S. Air Force and flew the B-47 in the Strategic Air Command and B-52 Bombers. Two days after he left the Air Force, he was hired by American Airlines and flew for the airline for 30 years, retiring in December of 1994. Harris flew a plethora of commercial aircraft with American Airlines, including the DC-6 and DC-7; Lockheed Electra; BAC One-Eleven; Boeing 747, 727, and 767; Airbus 300; and McDonell Douglas MD-11.
The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-American military aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps (AAC), a precursor of the U.S. Air Force. In September of 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt announced that the AAC would soon begin training black pilots at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama. On top of the roughly 1,000 pilots trained, the Tuskegee program trained an additional 14,000 navigators, bombardiers, instructors, aircraft and engine mechanics, control tower operators, and other maintenance and support staff. The pilots in the program flew more than 15,000 individual sorties in Europe and North Africa during World War II. Early in 1944, pilots from the Tuskegee-trained 99th Pursuit Squadron shot down 12 German fighters in two days, undeniably proving themselves in combat. Soon after, the 99th, 100th, 301st, and 302nd fighter squadrons merged to form the 332nd Fighter Group. The group began flying P-51 Mustangs to escort the heavy bombers of the 15th Air Force during raids deep into enemy territory. The tails of their planes were painted red for identification purposes, earning them the enduring nickname the “Red Tails.”
Gen. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.
General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., was among the 13 members of the first class of Tuskegee aviation cadets in 1941. He was a graduate of West Point and the son of Brig. Gen. Benjamin O. Davis, one of two black officers (other than chaplains) in the entire U.S. military. In 1943, he organized and commanded the 332nd Fighter Group (the Tuskegee Airmen). Davis helped plan the desegregation of the air force in 1948, graduated from the Air War College in 1950, commanded a fighter wing in the Korean War, and was promoted to brigadier general (a one-star general) in 1954. In 1959, Davis became the first African-American officer to reach the rank of major general (a two-star general) in the Air Force and was promoted to lieutenant general (a three-star general) in 1965. After retiring in 1970, he was named Director of Civil Aviation Security in the U.S. Department of Transportation. In that post, he devised and coordinated measures that effectively ended a wave of aircraft hijackings in the United States. Davis’s performance was so exemplary that he ended his career as Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Air Force. In 1971, he served as an assistant secretary at the Department of Transportation under President Richard M. Nixon.
Christina Hopper graduated with honors and received her commission as the distinguished graduate of the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps Program at the University of Texas, Austin, in May of 1998. In 1999, Hopper entered active duty and was selected to design and implement a new pilot screening program, ensuring the U.S. Air Force had a qualified pool of candidates ready for flight training. She completed Undergraduate Pilot Training in April of 2000 and was selected to fly the F-16, becoming one of only two African-American female pilots and 50 total female fighter pilots in the Air Force at that time. In 2002, she was deployed to Kuwait supporting Operations Southern Watch and Iraqi Freedom. During those operations, Hopper flew more than 50 combat missions and earned 4 Air Medals, becoming the first African-American female fighter pilot to fight in a major war. Today, Hopper is in the Air Force Reserve as a T-38 instructor pilot, where she trains, instructs, and mentors the next generation of fighter and bomber pilots. In 2015, she launched “Vance Supergirls,” a mentorship program where female instructors and students meet and discuss the challenges and opportunities in the male-dominated world of military flying.
Captain Bobby Charles Wilks
Captain Wilks was a trailblazer who made history as the first African-American Coast Guard aviator, the first African American to reach the rank of captain in the Coast Guard, and the first African American to command a Coast Guard air station. Captain Wilks received the Air Medal for the initiative, foresight, and aeronautical skill he exhibited on the night of December 9, 1971, while piloting his helicopter over the Pacific Ocean. Captain Wilks battled gale force winds and heavy seas but was able to successfully rendezvous with a Russian vessel 116 miles east of Hilo, Hawaii, and evacuate the ship’s critically ill master. As Dallas Schmidt, a former student of Wilks’s, said in an interview, “He was right at the limit of where you can take a helicopter. Even though he was a commander and I was just an ensign, you never had the feeling that he was pulling rank on you,” Schmidt recalled. “He was just a nice, nice man.” Captain Wilks retired in 1986 after 30 years of service in the Coast Guard. Throughout his long and distinguished aviation career, he accumulated more than 6,000 flight hours in 18 different types of aircraft.
Gleim is committed to modeling and promoting diversity and equity in the field of aviation. In tribute to Bessie Coleman and other inspiring female aviators who blazed the trail for future generations, Gleim has a conference room honoring her memory and the contributions of female aviators throughout history. It reminds us daily to follow their example of unstoppable courage and dedication to expanding the field of aviation. The Gleim company culture and, by extension, our educational outreach programs, embrace the truth that everyone deserves the opportunity to achieve their goals and dreams. Gleim’s STEM program promotes aviation education in high schools around the country, including districts that previously did not have access to such programs. Gleim’s goal is to share our passion for aviation with ALL high schoolers so that the next generation of aviators enhances and improves the field of aviation with their ingenuity and diversity.
Written by: Ryan Jeff, Aviation Research Assistant