The hard-won successes of pioneer black pilots

''The amazing thing to me was how far you could see from a few hundred feet up,'' said Thomas Allen, recalling his first plane ride in 1924 at age 17. The experience captivated his interest forever. Within a month he sold his saxophone to begin taking flying lessons, and after only three hours of instruction he soloed.

''Back in those years, if you didn't learn to fly by the time you had five or six hours, they said you wouldn't make it,'' he says.

Those few lessons marked the beginning of a distinguished aviation career lasting more than 50 years.

In 1932, exercising considerable imagination and courage, Mr. Allen and James Banning, calling themselves ''The Flying Hobos,'' became the first black men to fly across the United States. And they did it in a plane pieced together with junkyard parts.

Their unique history was about to be lost until Von Hardesty, an associate curator with the Smithsonian Institution, recommended that their achievements be honored with an exhibit at the Air and Space Museum here. That exhibit, ''Black Wings: The American Black in Aviation,'' opened last week for a two-year run.

Thomas Allen and James Banning needed 41 hours and 37 minutes of flying time to travel the 3,300 miles across the US. But the trip took considerably longer - 21 days. Along the way they had to devise ways to raise money so they could continue.

In Lordsburg, N.M., Mr. Allen hawked the suit off his back for fuel. In Tulsa , Okla.,they convinced oilman William Skelly to underwrite the next leg of their trip to St. Louis. In Pittsburgh, they worked out a deal with the Democratic Party for expenses by dropping FDR election leaflets on a half dozen cities across Pennsylvania. And in some towns, they asked black churches to pass the collection plate.

Nor was the route they took exactly straight. ''You had to go to a town with a black population to find a place to sleep and eat,'' said Mr. Allen, a retired Douglas aircraft mechanic now living in Oklahoma City.

But once in New York, they became the toast of a round of parties that lasted three weeks. Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway, and the mayor honored their achievement. It was almost enough to make them forget that the man who had promised a $1,000 prize never showed up.

Such were the experiences of pioneer black aviators in a segregated country. The first of their number, Eugene Bullard and Bessie Coleman, even had to travel to France for flying lessons.

The story at the Smithsonian is told primarily with 160 rare photographs and a five-minute film narrated by Benjamin O. Davis Jr., the first black Air Force general.

''It's not like a regular exhibit,'' said Mr. Hardesty. ''If you deal with Jimmy Doolittle and the blind flight, you don't have to deal with social history. You're dealing with a guy who did something that was a technological breakthrough. But here the story is shaped and conditioned by nothing less than racism.''

The exhibit is divided into three parts. The first, ''Headwinds,'' is about Bullard, Coleman, Allen, and other early-day aviators spanning the period from World War I to World War II. ''Wings for War'' covers World War II, and ''Era of Change'' the years since.

Early successes were few. ''Our problem was lack of financial support to do the things we would like to have done,'' said Mr. Allen. Blacks never could get backing for record flights across the Atlantic and into South America, he says.

According to Mr. Hardesty, ''There was a pervasive myth around that blacks couldn't fly, which was a convenient way of excluding them.''

World War II brought opportunities along with dangers. Four segregated black squadrons were trained for combat in Europe. General Davis, then a colonel, was their commander. The 99th Fighter Squadron, trained at Tuskegee, Ala., became the most famous of the four.

A smiling, confident Eleanor Roosevelt shocked many by climbing aboard a small training aircraft piloted by one black Tuskegee pilot and going up for a ride.

The Tuskegee Airmen, as they call themselves, remain organized today, with 18 chapters. They have yearly reunions and have opened their membership to almost anyone interested in aviation.

William Fuller of Miami, a retired regional executive for the Boy Scouts of America, was one of the original 28 Tuskegee airmen. He flew 76 combat missions over Europe in a P-40 fighter he named after his wife, Ruthea. He now admits he had ''mixed emotions'' about risking his life for a country that excluded him from many opportunities because of race.

''But this particular time we said we were doing this for the country, and we wanted to do the best job for the country,'' he recalls. ''And we wanted, of course, to get back to the States and then work with people to make it better.''

Upon his return from combat he was reminded of the extent of work to be done. When returning pilots, including the blacks of the 99th, were guests of a posh Atlantic City hotel, the officer in charge of the event initially tried to exclude Mr. Fuller's wife from attending with him. Only Mr. Fuller himself was deemed to have earned equal treatment. But with the confidence born of dangerous wartime experiences, he ignored the warning and brought his wife.

History was also well served by another Tuskegee airman, William Thompson, an armament officer. He is now a retired colonel and former Air Force Academy liaison officer living in Chicago.

Colonel Thompson, with a passion for photography, was forever taking pictures with his 35 mm and Graflex still cameras and his 16mm moving picture camera. Though he photographed for fun without thought of historical documentation, his prints and film have become the heart of the Smithsonian exhibit.

''I had forgotten I had them,'' admits Colonel Thompson. ''For 35 or 40 years they were sitting in a mayonnaise jar under my front porch.'' A call from Mr. Hardesty resulted in their retrieval. Miraculously, all the film was preserved.

According to Mr. Hardesty, the biggest boost for black aviators came after the war in 1948. By executive order, President Harry Truman ordered the integration of the military services.

Today there are many black generals and four black astronauts. And the training of blacks for military service has created a pool of black aviators for commercial aviation.

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