Pioneers in the Air

February 12, 2021

Image by Vernon Greene, Secretary of the Air Force Public Affairs

While Black soldiers had been fighting for the United States since the Revolutionary War, they were not afforded the opportunity to pursue specialty roles or leadership command. During World War I, many unsuccessfully sought to enlist and train as military pilots. It was more than twenty years of sustained advocacy efforts before there was legislation in 1939 that designated funds for training Black pilots.  


Still, segregation meant they were separated into their own military units under the command of white officers and faced discrimination both within and outside of the military. Rigid requirements were set up to limit access to training and the young men were expected to fail. 


Instead, the very requirements intended to make it more difficult for them to succeed resulted in an elite group of incredibly smart and fit young Black pilots.  


The 99th Pursuit Squadron, established in 1941, became the first flying unit made up of Black pilots. They received multiple commendations for their work in World War II – flying over 1,600 missions and destroying over 260 enemy aircraft. And proving themselves to be skilled and brave, they also played an instrumental role in the desegregation of the military in 1948. 


But the impact of their pioneering roles was felt long after the end of the war. These young men went on to become generals and judges and to continue to redefine what was possible for generations of young people to follow.  In fact, Kimberly Anyadike, the youngest female African American to pilot a transcontinental flight across the country in 2009, credited the Tuskegee Airmen as being her inspiration. 


The barriers being broken today – they haven’t come down all at once. They’ve been the result of a million moments of courage and conviction over the years by people like the Tuskegee Airmen.