Black pilot’s organization gains recruits and celebrates legacy

By Tomi Morris Johnson

Digital images by Kurk D. Johnson

©2002 WingcomLtd. All Rights Reserved.


August 12-18, 2002, Atlanta, GA…Despite experiments and layoffs, America’s Black pilots continue to exhibit intellectual stamina and mentoring skills at their national convention held at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. Neither fear nor anger pierced through their demeanor as they gathered for their annual convention in a major hub city, home of Delta Airlines, on the same day American Airlines announced a 7,000-person layoff.


Last week, U.S. Airways filed bankruptcy papers. If these pilots were anxious about their jobs, it didn’t show, nor did they appear miffed over the crisis that has hit aviation internationally since September 11, 2001. However, the possibility of them losing jobs had to be in the back of their minds as well as the threat of an impinging war. Yet, the main mission at their annual conference was passing off a flying career as one of the best choices available.


Pilots walked a straight walk, talked the straight talk, medals glowing, spirits soaring towards all the challenges aviation brings to the 21st century.  From museum exhibits featuring Tuskegee Airmen, to a check given to the wife of 9/11 pilot and hero Leroy Homer, the people who love and work in the heavens God made displayed pure inspiration.


Of the 136,000 airline pilots and navigators employed in America, about 1,000 are Black, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 1963, a major passenger airline -- Continental -- hired a Black pilot. There were 80 of them flying commercial airliners when the Organization of Black Airline Pilots (OBAP) began in 1976.


Two pilots stop to converse near U. S. Air Force display during OBAP convention.


“Somewhere out there beneath the pale moonlight,

Someone's thinking of me and loving me tonight…

Somewhere out there someone's saying a prayer,

That we'll find one another in that big somewhere out there.”

From “Somewhere Out There” written by James Horner, Barry Mann, and Cynthia Weil

Interview with Captain Houston Mills, Jr.

Captain Houston Mills, Jr., Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Organization of Black Airline Pilots (OBAP), is originally from Indianapolis, IN and now resides in the Louisville, KY.


◄“We are looking at starting an institutional membership in which we invite predominately Black colleges that have aviation programs to become a part of us and have a continuous loop from grade school, to college, to the cockpit.”


Q.  What is the mission of your organization?


A.  Our mission is twofold: 1) to expose aviation to the world, particularly to the minority community through mentoring programs, aviation camps, and other programs that give young people the opportunity to see what aviation is all about and where opportunities exist, and 2) to increase the number of African American and minority presence in the airline industry. Currently, of all airline employees, only 1% are African American or female. We certainly want to improve those numbers.




Q. Why is there a need for a national organization of Black pilots?


A. Many people ask “Why?”  For those of us who have been successful, it’s important for us to have a venue to connect and assist others. By us collaborating collectively, we are able to take advantage of the synergy that is created when you have like-minded people coming together for the same cause. Our purpose is very high minded in that it we don’t do this for self glory or fame. It’s all about giving someone else assistance to help them. If we don’t do it, who will?



Q.  I was talking to one of the Delta Airline’s trainers at the luncheon and asked him what they were teaching in the academy and was surprised to learn that most of what is taught is business related.


A.  With the current economic condition, we have many pilots who are laid off from work or are facing layoffs.  One of the things we do is give our members skills that allow them to be successful if aviation opportunities don’t exist. That is part of the rational behind the business focus.  The majority of our members are college graduates who are very proactive, self-starters who any corporation would love to have on their staffs, whether they are a pilot or not.



Pictured above are (l to r) Capt. William Thompson, Chairman, DAL 44 Legislative Affairs, Air Line Pilots Association, and Pilot Chris Taylor, Delta Air Lines, Inc.

The camaraderie between pilots and recruiters attending the convention was excellent.” Prof. Errol Lee


Q. Does your organization lobby on Capital Hill, trying to get hiring practices changed?


A.  In the past, we have had people represent us on issues that are critical to the organization. We do not maintain a lobbying presence consistently, but if there is something we feel is discriminatory or will put a roadblock for our members to get opportunities, we won’t hesitate to get involved.


Q.  Is their any particular airport that most Black pilots fly from or any airline for which Black pilots work?


A. There are only about 700 of us nationally working for major airlines out of 75,000. UPS has about 3.7% of pilots who are African American. One neat thing about our convention is that it allows us to come together once a year and share our stories, to re-encourage us and let us know that we’re not out there alone.

                                                                        ▲Flight cards feature 1st Officer Brenda Robinson & 1st Officer Willie Parks


A. Sometimes the name “Black” intimidates people against our organization because they see it as a separatist type of thing, but we’re not. We have all types of member: Blacks, Whites, Jews, Gentiles, Caucasians, Hispanics, you name it, they’re all here. But our mission and focus is still the same. If you believe in our mission, you’re welcomed to come join us.


Q. Guns in the cockpit – does your organization have a position on that issue?


A. Currently, no.


Q.  Can you describe the women’s participation in your group?


A. We have about 18 women at national airlines, but we have many women who participate in our organization as associate members who basically keep us on tract.  Aviation is predominately a male profession, so it’s nice that we have a proactive group of females who are helping us be considerate of all the various obstacles, views and concerns that affect our members. They play a critical role.



▲Tuskegee Airmen Walter J. A. Palmer from Indianapolis, IN autographed posters for SM Sgt. Claudia Bell and Sr. A Karen Brinkley from McGuire Air Force base that represented female pilots.



▲Sr. A Carmen Gatlin said, “It’s a real blessing to be able to come here and see a lot of history firsthand. This is a way to make the right connections and get opportunities to move up and recruit more Black pilots. My advice to future women pilots is, ‘Shoot for it 100%.’”


Q. Your website also gives information about your group’s general counsel, Eddie Hadden, testifying before Congress in 1994 on the airline industry’s hiring practices.  What is the status of present hiring practices of Black pilots and support staff?


A. To be honest, OBAP’s goal is to increase the number of minorities in aviation. We’ve aligned ourselves strategically with all the major airlines – United, Delta, American, UPS, Federal Express, Continental, and all the regional airlines.  Even today, as we speak, many interviews for jobs are taking place here. We have a tremendous relationship of corporate folks here who see us as a resource.  In addition to attracting and networking, we also have a professional pilot development program to assist our members in getting all the skills required to be successful. When they put their resumes together and go for an interview, they can feel confident. If we don’t think they’re ready, we won’t push them. This training includes mock interviews, simulator training, scholarship assistance, etc. When they go to that interview, the job is almost theirs.


◄Leona Lee Woodward and Capt. Edward Woodward (Retired) from Vallejo, California


Q. It is nice being able to fly a plane, from the joy of flight to the money it pays, but what about owning airlines?  What is going on in this regard – of Black owned airlines?


A.  There was an attempt recently to start DC Air. It’s just a matter of time. With the right business leaders and resources, as we grow economically, there are numerous opportunities to invest and maximize our returns. It is a business choice as we grow. People who are in a position to make substantial investments can do it.


Q. How can today’s young pilots use the Tuskegee Airmen experiment as a cornerstone or building block?



Convention highlights were the historical booths, aviation memorabilia and stories told by the Tuskegee Airmen.


A.  The Tuskegee Airmen (TAI), who I honor religiously, flew with the weight of the entire country on their shoulders. They flew knowing that if they failed segregation, as they knew it, would probably continue. The neat thing about an airplane and being a pilot, the plane doesn’t care what color you are. All it wants to know is, “Can you fly me.” TAI demonstrated that their abilities were just as good if not better than their contemporaries. Desegregation for a long time was all about separate but not really equal. TAI proved that personal equality was not a limitation. I think young people have to concentrate on remembering our past, because if we don’t remember our heritage, which is very rich, then we’re doomed to fall into some traps.


I would suggest to them to learn how Tuskegee Airmen faced obstacles, and they didn’t give up. When they came back as heroes from WW II, were not given opportunities to join the major airlines, and had to find other careers, they still persevered. They are cornerstones from the perspectives of courage, endurance, and grace. When you look in their eyes, there might be a little bit of hurt that never went away. Any house has to have a strong foundation. TAI and their membership is our cornerstone because the opportunities that I receive now as a Black Captain would not have existed if they hadn’t made the sacrifice. It’s incumbent on me to be willing to make the same sacrifice.


Q. What are you hoping to accomplish at this year’s convention?


A. As Chairman of the Board, I try to bring a vision to look for ways to improve our organization. What have we accomplished?  We’ve helped to get some more people hired, we’ve renewed some old friendships, made some new ones, we’re planning for future conventions and the challenges that the airline industry faces, and mapping out strategies to overcome them. We have also made strategic plans to mold the organization; such as an expanded mentoring program similar to what the 100 Black Men organization does with whom we do partner. We are looking at starting an institutional membership in which we invite predominately Black colleges who have aviation programs to become a part of us and have a continuous loop from grade school, to college, to the cockpit. You have to have support, and if it’s there, we task ourselves to make it happen.



▲Paul Majer (3rd from left) announced new employees Stephen Scott, Carlos Zendejas, and Jonathan Debeb would be joining Alaskan Airlines as a result of interviews held at the OBAP convention.



THE TUSKEGEE AIRMEN► In attendance at the Organization of Black Airline Pilots, Inc.’s (OBAP) Convention were the famed Tuskegee Airmen and their instructors, living heroes who shot down myths. Here are some comments and photos from these living legends.



Next year’s OBAP annual conference will be held in Denver, CO.  Wingcom Ltd’s Tomi Johnson interviewed Col. Charles E. McGee (3rd from left), National President of the Tuskegee Airmen. Also pictured are Tuskegee Airman LeRoy F. Gillead, Col. Ralph W. Smith, and Captain Eugene W. Garges, Jr.


Col. Charles E. McGee, Bethesda, MD, National President of the Tuskegee Airmen, talked about that era.  “You had to take a physical examination and besides being physically qualified, you had to pass mental tests. Being colorblind would keep you out; in fact, we had a friend who went through the training and was able to get by until that final physical and didn’t receive his commission because he was colorblind. But those were standards for everybody, Black or White, set for pilots coming into the Army Air Corps in 1941 through 1946. It’s important that those who are captains, first officers, or engineers are qualified so that people who have their tickets punched and board an aircraft can feel comfortable.


“The Tuskegee Airmen experiment was the foundation for Black pilots of today because when that program started, there was a lot of thought that Blacks were not capable. It was that program that gave us an opportunity to prove or disprove a theory, and of course, we disproved the myth. It did bring about a change later, both in the attitudes of people and the policies of the Army Air Corps and the Air Force for using people based on their skills and ability, and giving them the opportunity to test rather than automatically saying because of color, origin of birth, or whatever, that they weren’t capable. That was a big change.”


Captain Eugene W. Garges, Jr., Manhasset, Long Island, NY, (Eastern Airlines) was a flight trainer for the Tuskegee Airmen and talked about the experiment and the participant’s aptitudes. “The color of your skin has nothing to do with your aptitude as a pilot. I always told everybody that. When people find out that I had been at Tuskegee, and asked me, ‘How were they?’ I said, ‘No different from anybody else.’ The Tuskegee Airmen proved what should not have had to be proven – that they could fly.

“I have one memory of when an instructor took a man up for his first flight in an AT6 and gave him a lot of acrobatics, and asked him if he could do that, and he said, ‘I’ll try’ and he did it as well as the instructor. And the instructor came down, went to the flight leader, and told him he had a student that could fly as good as he could. And he said, ‘Do you have a guy by the name of James?’ And it was Chappie James. He was a good pilot. My advice to young pilots is to stay in school and get all the education you can.”


Airman LeRoy F. Gillead, a native New Yorker, “Most people have no idea there were 14,612 Black and White civilian and military women and men in the Tuskegee experiment because only the 450 combat pilots get the recognition, which is just about 3%. The Tuskegee Airmen were not all Black; that is a misconception people have. All those people were part of this experiment that began with the civilian pilot training program in 1939. It had five phases – 2 civilian and 3 military components.  I enlisted in the 2nd Army Air Corps at Mitchell Field in New York to go to Chanute Field in Illinois to get technical training and become part of the 99th Bomber Squadron. It began in the fall of 1939 at six Black colleges, from the fighter group to the bomber group. There were 1500 support people behind those 450 pilots that went overseas.


“Blacks were not allowed into the Army Air Corps in 1941. Two Black pilots flew, and they encouraged members of Congress to include Blacks in pilot training. There was resistance to it by Whites, so when they developed the plans to have a civilian cadre, the South didn’t want the Blacks to participate, so they couldn’t go to the South. They went to the Black colleges and to Harlem Field in Chicago. They were supposed to go from civilian to military pilot training. They did that for Whites, but there was a 15-month gap from when they allowed Blacks to get into it, until July and August of 1941. That was the first class of Black cadets, and they graduated in the winter of 1942. I became a navigator bombardier.



▲Tuskegee Airmen Woodward displays his jacket with over 14,000 names of Tuskegee Airmen – men & women, husbands & wives, Blacks & whites – who were part of the Tuskegee Airmen experiment.►




“Most of the Blacks who came out of the experiment worked for the government, not commercial airlines. I don’t personally know of any airline pilot who was a Tuskegee Airmen. I don’t think that happened. The number of Blacks in the commercial airline industry has only varied by 1 or 2% from whenever they started. It’s still a very small amount. The potential for pilots in America is diminishing, not increasing because of automation and the kinds of planes they fly. Now you see people flying smaller planes, and they can fly pilots longer. The potential of being a pilot is not an open field as say electronics, but pilots make good money. It’s like basketball…all these boys who want to play basketball can’t succeed. They got 10,000 trying to be Michael Jordan, but very few can do it.”


The weeklong convention featured several luncheons. Several major, regional, and corporate airlines donated between $5,000 (Wal-Mart) and $100,000 (FedEx) to OBAP for recruitment and training programs.




Federal Express Senior VP of Air Operations Donald O. Barber was the speaker for OBAP’s corporate luncheon.  “We can’t afford to have different views on systemic changes,” Barber said. He stressed the importance of communication, navigation, surveillance and international standards in the airline industry.



Gabriel Centenera (l), a Hispanic pilot and training instructor on regional jets from the Washington, DC area, said the convention was impressive. “The people attending are of the highest caliber, the corporate sponsorship is amazing…this is a top-notch event. This organization is bridging gaps by exposure, awareness and opportunity promotion.  It’s important that kids see that aviation is an obtainable goal. As a child, I loved model airplanes and began plotting a career path in aviation. I went the military route, and as I got older, focused on my goal to become a pilot. When the industry stumbles, my advice is to fly for the love of flying so you won’t get distracted by turbulent times.” Centenera is pictured with Flight Instructor Errol Lee.



ComAir Academy Flight Professor Errol Lee (r) who works in Jacksonville, FL said the camaraderie between pilots and recruiters attending the convention was excellent. “This is a great networking tool for the kids. I was born and raised on the streets of New York and used to watch planes take off and land at Kennedy Airport and thought I would never make it, but I did. My best advice to youth is, ‘Don’t give up.’ The only barriers young pilots will have to overcome are the ones they put before themselves... ‘Look past barriers and realize your dreams.’” Lee said academy core courses are in Business, which prepares pilots for the real world.



Sidebar: Interview with Pilot and Dr. James DeWitt, Oakland, CA


In the U.S., there is a critical shortage of Black medical doctors and Black pilots. How can we get more Blacks into the medical profession and aviation?

Dr. DeWitt:  “A recruitment effort has to be sustained, encouraging young Black physicians, nurses and medical teams that we use and shift it into helping the Black community.  It could be some kind of an urban force. The focus at this meeting is aviation, but we could focus on urban needs for physicians and health care since there is a shortage in all areas.


“Black pilots and others certainly would share the idea of trying to bring people together who have similar interests in the Black community. I have no answers on how to get Black physicians in the area; the real question is how to get MORE physicians into medicine. Many programs do not actively recruit for Black physicians.



In California, there have been some reversals on affirmative action, which hold back many Blacks wanting to go into medicine. Many young women are interested in nursing because there is a critical shortage in this area as well as nurse practitioners and physician assistances.



“It has taken us 30 years to set up programs, and then the administration has come along and said, ‘No, Blacks don’t really need anything because they can stand on their own’… The truth of the matter is, they really cannot.”  Dr. James DeWitt pictured with son and Wingcom Ltd’s Tomi Johnson►



“My father was not a doctor; he was an army soldier, but he encouraged all his kids to go to school. My siblings tended more to nursing and teaching. I wanted my son to go to medical school, but he did not go there. He was all set to go to medical school, and they cut out the program. They said there was an unfortunate decision known as Bakke in which the White students wanted to be in medical school, so they put pressure on schools to change their policies so there would be nothing set aside for Black students. Back then, “Black” was synonymous with minority because we did not consider Asians, Vietnamese and all the others as being minorities.


“The answer is a political one. You have students who are capable to continue in health care professions.  It is a shame we do not somehow keep them moving. It has taken us 30 years to set up programs, and then the administration has come along and said, ‘No, Blacks don’t really need anything because they can stand on their own.’ Even some Black educators have said, ‘No, there should not be a special program for Blacks because they can go to any medical school in the country.’ The truth of the matter is, they really cannot. Howard Medical School in Washington D. C. and Meharry Medical School in Nashville, TN are predominately Black schools where we have had any say so for who may get in. That is unfortunate. We should be able to have the same influence over other schools, especially schools where Blacks are present and in a large numbers.


“It takes a long time to make a doctor. I have two kids left at home, and I am disappointed they did not go to medical school, since I worked on that for a long time. Unfortunately, they did not, so that is all right; they are interested in aviation. I am a pilot myself, trained by a flight instructor who was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen.


“You must have a quota. They did that with the military when John F. Kennedy became president in 1962. He looked around him when he visited the Army and Naval Academies, and was disappointed because there were no Black cadets. He encouraged all of the armed services to set aside a certain percent of their positions so Blacks could enter the academy. That was a huge step because before that, there was hardly any Blacks at the academies. They did the same thing for pilots. That is why they started this OBAP, because the Tuskegee Airmen struggled to just let the Black pilots fly. They did not want them to fly, nor did they want them in aviation. Their IQ’s were not high enough. They felt Blacks could not fly a plane because that was too complicated to assemble. Blacks could not handle that! They recommended that Blacks drive trucks and do other transportation jobs.



“I feel that you should be able to go into all sorts of positions. I would place more emphasis on professional positions because we are always going to need professionals – teachers, preachers, social workers, nurses, and doctors. You must keep the colleges of higher learning open and available for them – the leaders of tomorrow. We are not going to have too much trouble finding non-professionals,” DeWitt said.



·        January – March 1941 – The War Department activates the 99th Pursuit Squadron: support personnel and ground crews begin training at Chanute Field, IL.

·        March 6, 1942 – The first five Tuskegee Airmen earn their wings.

·        April 19, 1941 - 1st Lady Eleanor Roosevelt takes to the air with Black flight Instructor Charles “Chief” Anderson at Tuskegee Air Field against the wishes of her bodyguards.

·        July 2, 1943 – Tuskegee Airman Charles B. Hall of Brazil, IN, becomes first Black pilot to shoot down an enemy plane and later becomes first Black to receive the Distinguished Flying Cross.

·        July 1941 – The “Tuskegee Experiment” begins as 13 Black college graduates begin aviation training at Tuskegee Army Airfield, Tuskegee Institute, AL

·        May 8, 1945 – World War II ends.  Sixty-six Tuskegee Airmen were killed in action.  Thirty-two of them were taken as prisoners of war.

·        September 2, 1941 – Tuskegee Airman Captain Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. becomes first Black man to officially solo as an Army Air Corps officer.      

·        1972 – Tuskegee Airmen, Inc. is founded in Detroit, MI as a non-military, non-profit organization.


(Taken from Tuskegee Airmen Honorary Awards Banquet Brochure, Inland Empire Chapter, Inc., Riverside, CA, May 19, 2002.)



(Taken from  “Florida Black Heritage Trail,” Florida Department of State, Tallahassee, FL 06/97)


NOTES>>>> Freedman Field Mutiny, a book written by James C. Warren, concerns an incident that happened in Indiana when Black officers refused to sign away their dignity. Over one hundred Black officers were called to sign a petition to racially separate themselves from certain areas on the base. It was a case of White superiority asserting itself. The Black men were encouraged by commanders, generals, and others up the war department chain not to go to the Officer’s Club. This is MUST reading for aviation history buffs.


The information in this article is the opinion of the author and, therefore, should not be construed as libelous.