For years, black aviation history, like most black experiences in America, has been relegated to the back pages of newspapers or to footnotes in books and journals.
Consequently, many aviation buffs have no first-hand knowledge of the black contributions to aviation. These contributions do exist, however, a very small portion have been formally chronicled and documented. Because of this, American aviation is often perceived as an exclusively white profession.
Years ago, Ben Thomas, a young black pilot with Eastern Airlines evaluated the state of the U.S. airline industry. By way of the landmark 1963 U.S. Supreme Court Case, Marlon Green had succeeded in smashing the “Color Barrier” by becoming the first black hired by a major U.S. Passenger Airline (Continental). However, the number of black pilots employed in 1976 was appallingly small. Ben was not alone in recognizing this state of affairs, but his response to the situation was special. He took it upon himself to spearhead an effort to form a permanent body to address this issue. His idea was to simply establish a representative group dedicated to advancing and enhancing the participation of blacks and other minorities in the aviation industry, especially as pilots. On September 17th and 18th of 1976, thirty-seven of the industry’s approximately 80 black pilots convened at the O’Hare Hilton Hotel in Chicago. As a result of that meeting, The Organization of Black Airline Pilots (OBAP) was born.
From the outset OBAP has focused its greatest emphasis on preparing young people to realize a successful future and highlight the exciting potential available in aviation. To be certain of an aviation oriented group representing African-American and Minority concerns was neither new nor unique. Years earlier the Tuskegee Airmen Inc. (TAI) and Black Wings in Aviation had been formed with similar goals and both continue to be very active today. OBAP’s unique approach to the concept was to build on the progress made in the military and general aviation arenas by expanding the cause within the airline industry.
In 1982, the “Black Wings” Exhibit debuted in the National Air And Space Museum in Washington, D.C. OBAP participated with other organizations in creating a permanent tribute to African-Americans in Aviation. The continually evolving exhibit serves as an important showcase of often omitted aviation history.
In 1986, OBAP’s General Counsel Eddie Hadden (Eastern) testified before a U.S. Congressional hearing on airline industry hiring practices. Among positive effects of this forum was Congressional pressure on the industry to improve its minority recruiting performance, and the continuing scrutiny of that performance. In 1994 Ed Moon offered additional testimony before a similar session.
In 1976, approximately 80 black pilots were employed by the nation’s major and commuter passenger airlines and freight carriers. By 1986 that number had risen to nearly 400, and today the total is estimated to be 674, including at least 14 black female pilots (thanks to Bessie Coleman). While the total increase is impressive on the surface, one must realize that there is a total of over 71,000 pilots working for these airlines. The struggle to expand African-American Pilot presence in the faces of unfair hiring/retention practices continues to be an uphill effort, and promises to become increasingly difficult as the generation of black pilots (hired in the 60’s) has already begun to reach mandatory retirement age. Additionally, the military, which serves as a traditional source of airline pilots, especially black pilots , is rapidly being downsized.
In recent years several important rulings in Judicial proceedings have reinforced hope that practices which abrogate and undermine the spirit of official policies will no longer be tolerated without severe penalty. In complementary actions OBAP is proud of the successful cooperative relations and joint activities that it has established with many Airlines, Government Agencies, and Private Organizations over the years to address racial inequities and other issues of mutual concern.
There are indications that these events and initiatives have begun to bear fruit. In 1986, United Airlines had fewer than 35 black pilots, today they employ over 260, including 8 African-American females. In an effort to augment the dwindling military supply of pilots, OBAP President M. Perry Jones played a key role during 1992-93 in encouraging the U.S. Congress to fund a study to evaluate the nation’s supply, demand, and production capacity for airline pilots beyond the year 2000, and the possible advantages of establishing a national aviation training facility at a historically black institution. The result of this effort was approval of a 2 year study by the National Academy of Sciences and an appointed panel. In 1988, United Parcel Service launched a brand new freight airline. From the outset they pledged to aggressively seek to set new standards in the industry relating to minority pilot representation. Today over 3.5% of their pilots are African-American. When Patrice Clarke-Washington upgraded to Captain, UPS became the only major operator to have a black female captain. In an effort to employ resources more efficiently and broaden the impact of our effort, OBAP has sought to join forces with other African-American aviation groups including Tuskegee Airmen Inc. (TAI) and Black Wings in Aviation (NAI). In 1991 and 1992 we convened joint national conventions with TAI and in 1995 we had a joint session with NAI. In an effort to inspire more black youth to become involved in aviation, OBAP played a lead role in expanding the FAA co-sponsored Aviation Career Education (ACE) camps. In 1992 OBAP participated in two of these camps, involving 41 young people. In 1994 we co-sponsored 17 of these camps providing hands-on flying experience for over 400 youth.
While progress during the relatively short lifetime of OBAP has been noteworthy, let none of us forget that the struggle began long before. In fact, the struggle began close to the dawn of American aviation, in the early 1900’s during the Bessie Coleman era. It dates back to the time when black aviators were categorically denied the right to be certified as pilots in the United States. It continued through the famous “Tuskegee Experience,” which decidedly demonstrated that African-American pilots could fly as well as any group, in combat or otherwise. It continued through the years following World War II when none of the 992 combat qualified graduates of the Tuskegee program were deemed qualified to be pilots for the nation’s major passenger airlines. It continues today. It will continue as long as necessary.