Training at Tuskegee: Turning dreams into reality

  • Published
  • By Randy Roughton
  • Air Force News Service

Words from the Air Force’s first African American general catch the attention of visitors to the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, giving them an idea of the pride pilots felt for their flight training here, particularly the first time they took the air alone.


 “After the last landing, the instructor took his parachute out of the rear cockpit, and told me to take it up alone,” said Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., then a captain, about his solo flight.


“This was what I had been waiting for. Up until this moment, he had watched my every move, but I had not received any real indication about how I was doing. Now I knew that he approved. I took it up and went over some of the maneuvers I had performed under his instruction. It was my airplane.”


Dr. Daniel L. Haulman is the branch chief for the Air Force Historical Research Agency at Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., who believes there are four factors the Army considered when choosing Tuskegee as the training site for African-American pilots.


Those factors were the area’s temperate climate, the fact that segregated squadrons would be more accepted in the South, the university’s educational reputation and history, and that it already had a civilian pilot training program,


Another driving force was George L. Washington, an engineer and director of mechanical industries and the Tuskegee Institute Division of Aeronautics, who was instrumental in bringing the primary flight training program to Tuskegee. He oversaw the construction, outfitting and expansion of Moton Field, and as general manager, he hired and supervised flight instructors, airplane maintenance personnel, and other support personnel, and ensured that cadets were properly housed and fed. While the Army looked at the training of African American pilots as an experiment, Washington didn’t see it that way.


“Acceptance of Negroes into the Air Corps for training as military pilots meant one thing for the Negro and another to the military establishment, and possibly white Americans,”


Washington wrote in his unpublished papers that are kept in the Tuskegee University Archives. “For the Negro, it was an opportunity to further demonstrate his ability to measure arms with any other race, particularly white Americans, when given an equal opportunity. Performance in civilian aviation had certainly proven their ability to fly as individuals. And certainly this had to be the prime requisite for success in military aviation. Therefore, this was just another in the long chain of demonstrations over many years. Certainly this opportunity was far from being an experiment to the Negro.”


The first Civilian Pilot Training Program students completed their training in May 1940. Two months later, Tuskegee Institute became the center of the Civil Aeronautics Authority’s secondary training program. By late November, the War Department sought to use the institute’s civilian pilot training secondary courses as a steppingstone into the Army Air Force’s basic flight course, and Tuskegee Institute was offered a contract in February 1941 to train African American pilots.


Airport 1 would be Kennedy Field, which was no more than a sod runway with a few buildings for aircraft and refueling equipment. Kennedy became most known for Charles A. (“Chief”) Anderson’s famous flight with first lady Eleanor Roosevelt in 1941. But the program’s chief instructor meant much more to the many Tuskegee Airmen he trained.


Tuskegee Institute recruited him in 1940 to be the chief civilian flight instructor for African American pilots. Anderson developed a pilot training program and taught the first advanced course, and in June 1941, the Army named him the ground commander and chief instructor for cadets in the 99th Pursuit Squadron, the nation’s first African American fighter squadron.


To many Tuskegee Airmen, Anderson, who died in Tuskegee in 1996, will not only always be “Chief.” For them, he was also “the beginning” of their journey into military flight.


“Chief pilot wasn’t just a position in the staff we were operating,” said Roscoe Draper, who joined Anderson as an instructor in 1942. “It was also an honorary position in our hierarchy. He was considered the coach of the pilots.


“I will always feel I owe him an awful lot, the way he opened doors for me. Chief Anderson opened doors we never could have approached otherwise.”


Airport 2 was Moton Field, which was still under construction when the first class arrived for primary flight training on July 19, 1941, so Davis and his 12 fellow cadets began training at Kennedy Field. The field, located four miles north of Tuskegee, had no paved runways, as it does today. Now, it’s the site of the city’s municipal airport and the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site.


About five and a half miles northwest of the campus was the third airport, Airport 3, the Tuskegee Army Air Field, where all of the basic, advanced and fighter transition phases of flying training were conducted. The first class began training in the basic phase on an incomplete field on Nov. 8, 1941.


Cadets had to pass four phases of training to receive their wings. During primary flight training, cadets spent half the day in classrooms learning the theory of flight, physics, navigation, radio procedures and aircraft recognition, as well as academic subjects.


Early on, cadets trained in Stearman PT-17 and PT-13 biplanes and PT-19 monoplanes at Tuskegee Institute and at Moton Field.  It was later moved from the campus to Tuskegee Army Air Field, and the length of the phase increased from four to 10 weeks by May 1944. Cadets learned how to use checklists, stalls and spins, acrobatic maneuvers, and parachute and bail-out instructions, in addition to making 175 landings during this phase.

After completing primary pilot training, cadets moved to the Tuskegee Army Air Field, the first and only major base built for the basic and advanced phases of military flying training for African-American pilots, as well as the first major base built by a black construction company, for the next three phases.


In the basic phase, cadets flew in the BT-13 trainer and learned military flying techniques, how to fly by instruments, day and night flight and cross-country and formation flying in about 70 to 75 hours of flight time. This phase was increased from nine to 10 weeks in May 1944.


Advanced training transitioned the pilots from the single-engine trainer to fighter aircraft, the AT-6A Texan. Following this phase, they were given advanced transition training from the AT-6 to the P-40 Warhawk or the twin-engine AT-10 Wichita trainer for pilots who would be flying B-25 Mitchell bombers. Instructors were especially crucial in the advanced phase. Surviving Tuskegee Airmen often refer to their instruction as what could “make or break a cadet.”


After primary training, cadets moved on to basic and advanced flight training at Tuskegee Army Air Field, about seven miles from Moton Field. The field was the first and only major base built for the basic and advanced phases of military flying training for African American pilots.  It was also the first major base built by a black construction company.

Here they learned ground operations, takeoffs, turns, climbs, aerobatics, descents, landings, and emergency procedures before they were expected to successfully complete their solo and cross-country flights before graduating from primary flight training.


By the end of World War II, close to 1,000 pilots had been trained at Tuskegee, along with close to 16,000 other troops in support roles such as mechanics, admin, cooks parachute riggers and air traffic controllers.  Military training at Tuskegee ended in 1946, and on July 26, 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 ending segregation and racial discrimination within the armed forces.  Dr. Haulman believes the end of segregation in the military was a direct result of the great “experiment” that proved African Americans could train, fight and fly as well as their white counterparts.