July 19, 2022

The Birth of the Tuskegee Airmen

The Birth of the Tuskegee Airmen

July 19, 1941. The Tuskegee Airmen begin their training as the first class of Black pilots in the U.S. Army Air Forces.


Cold Open - A Crash Landing on the “Goodwill Flight”

It’s November 20th, 1934 in the air above the Haiti-Dominican border.

From the pilot’s seat of their small airplane, Charles Alfred Anderson flashes a grin at his co-pilot, Dr. Albert Forsythe. They’re about 30 minutes into their flight from Haiti, and all is going well. Until... Charles hears a loud, unwelcome sound.

The engine has failed. If Charles doesn’t manage a safe landing, their flight will come to a quick and tragic end. To an amateur pilot, this emergency landing would be daunting. But Charles is no amateur.

As the wind whips against his plane, Charles takes a deep breath and concentrates, drawing from his hundreds of hours of experience in the sky. He calmly steers the aircraft and aims for an open stretch of land below.

Charles holds the controls steady. He keeps his eyes focused on the landing target below as the ground gets closer and closer…  

But then the wind shifts and the plane is buffeted off course. Charles is afraid he’ll be blown into the thick brush below, for sure a rough and likely deadly landing. But again, Charles knows what to do. Even without his engines, he manages to counter the wind, reorient his craft, and inch back on target. He has only seconds to get back on course, and with one final nudge of the stick… the aircraft shudders as the wheels thud against the ground. Charles breathes a sigh of relief and so does his co-pilot, Albert. Charles has managed to keep them both alive, and he’s also kept alive the hopes and dreams of countless others.

Charles and Albert’s flight to Haiti from the Dominican Republic is the latest leg of the duo’s “Pan-American Goodwill” tour. What makes this tour historic is that Charles and Albert are Black.

Throughout his life, Charles was drawn to flying, but he faced discrimination at every step. He was barred from pilot schools and training programs because of his race, but Charles refused to give up and found a way to teach himself. Through relentless perseverance, he became the first Black man in America to earn a commercial pilot’s license. With Albert as his partner, he designed this tour as a way to show the world that Black pilots are just as capable as whites.

And soon, Charles will put his skills to use for the United States Government. He will train a new generation of black pilots at the Tuskegee Army Airfield. This first class of Tuskegee airmen, as the young men will come to be called, will carry on the fight for the respect Black pilots deserve when they begin their training on July 19th, 1941.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is July 19th, 1913: “The Birth of the Tuskegee Airmen”.

Act One: Eleanor Flies with the “Chief” 

It’s March 29th, 1941, in Tuskegee, Alabama, more than six years after Charles and Albert’s “Goodwill” tour. It’s a sunny spring day as First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt tours the grounds of the Tuskegee Institute, a famous Black college.

During today’s tour, Eleanor will get a chance to see the school’s brand-new pilot training program. 

For years, Black people have been barred from service in the United States military. But in 1939, with Europe engulfed in war, it looked increasingly likely that the United States would soon join. And it needed more people ready to fight and pilots were especially valuable. To prepare for an eventual entry into the war, the United States established the Civil Pilot Training Program.

At first, Black people were only allowed to participate in the program on a segregated basis at a small number of all-Black colleges, including the Tuskegee Institute. They were still not allowed to enlist in the U.S. military. But two years later, following pressure from Black civil rights activists, President Roosevelt signed an executive order requiring the Army to allow Black people to enlist. Many Black men see joining the Army as a way to show their worth and to prove their doubters wrong.

As the First Lady steps outside, Eleanor’s attention is drawn upward to the sky where she sees three small airplanes maneuvering expertly through the air. Eleanor has always loved flying. One of her close friends is the famed female pilot Amelia Earhart. And Eleanor asks one of her guides about the planes above her.

The guide explains that the planes are being flown by Tuskegee students. Eleanor is surprised. She knew Tuskegee was training Black pilots, but she did not expect them to be so far along in their training. And now Eleanor’s curiosity is piqued. She asks to take a ride with one of the Tuskegee’s Black pilots.

The First Lady’s Secret Service men are stunned. There’s no way they can allow Eleanor Roosevelt to risk her life by getting in a plane. But she insists. Exasperated, one of the secret service agents calls Eleanor’s husband, President Roosevelt. But the President knows better than anyone that once Eleanor puts her mind to something, the matter is settled.

The pilot who agrees to take Eleanor up is the head instructor at Tuskegee, Charles Alfred Anderson. Charles has spent his whole life proving that Black people can fly just as well as anyone, but he’s never had the chance to do it with such a distinguished passenger.

Soon, Charles helps Eleanor into the back of the airplane and takes his seat in the front. Eleanor grips her chair as Charles starts the engine and the plane lurches slowly forward. They move steadily down the runway, picking up speed, until Charles confidently brings the plane into the air.

The plane climbs higher and higher. Eleanor has flown plenty of times, but she can’t help feeling a flush of excitement. She watches as the red brick buildings of the Tuskegee Institute get smaller and smaller. Charles steers the plane gracefully, and as the Tuskegee Institute’s grounds fade from view, Eleanor takes in the surrounding countryside. By the time Charles brings the plane to a smooth landing about 40 minutes later, Eleanor knows she was foolish to harbor any doubts about the abilities of Tuskegee’s Black pilots. After landing, a news photographer snaps a picture of her with a huge smile on her face in the backseat of Charles’ airplane.

The photo is published in newspapers across the country. And Eleanor also shares her experience in a syndicated newspaper column, writing, “These boys are good pilots. I had the fun of going up in one of the tiny training planes with the head instructor. The days at Tuskegee have given me much to think about.”

The news of the First Lady riding with a Black pilot causes a stir.

Earlier that year, the War Department begrudgingly agreed to form an all-Black squadron of military pilots, the 99th Pursuit Squadron. And the First Lady’s widely-publicized ride with Charles Alfred Anderson is a strong vote of confidence for Black pilots. But many in the War Department are far from convinced. They have little faith that this so-called “experiment” will succeed. And soon, the brave cadets at Tuskegee will have to go above and beyond to prove them wrong.

Act Two: Training at Tuskegee

It’s July 19th, 1941 at the Tuskegee Institute, a few months after Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous ride. Captain Benjamin O. Davis Jr. stands at attention with twelve other cadets under the baking summer sun. Benjamin glances up at the statue of Tuskegee’s founder, the celebrated Black educator Booker T. Washington. He can’t help but wonder what Washington would have thought of this day.

Benjamin comes from a tradition of barrier-breaking Black men. His father is the first and only Black general in the United States military. Following in his father’s footsteps, Benjamin attended the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. And as the only Black student there, Benjamin spent four years completely isolated. He roomed alone and most of his classmates refused to even speak to him.

But Benjamin wasn’t deterred; he always dreamt of being a pilot and he was determined to make his dream come true. In 1935, he applied to fly for the U.S. Army but was rejected. At the time, the Army refused to admit Black pilots. But six years later, Benjamin is finally getting his chance as part of the Army’s segregated unit at Tuskegee.

Benjamin and twelve other cadets listen attentively as Major General Walter Weaver welcomes them to the start of their training. As the general speaks, he makes it clear this is no ordinary training class. Today, Benjamin and his classmates are finally breaking the color line as the first group of Black cadets to begin pilot training for the U.S. Army.

Weaver impresses on them the importance of this moment. He tells them to remember the principles that Booker T. Washington stood for - hard work, attention to duty, loyalty; and to remember that the eyes of the nation are upon them. Black Americans are watching most closely too, Weaver tells them, not that Benjamin needs to be reminded. He spent his whole life working twice as hard to prove his worth in the military and outside it. He does not intend to let anyone call this experiment a failure.

Benjamin and the other men of the 99th Pursuit Squadron train under the famous Black pilot, Charles Alfred Anderson, or “Chief” as they call him. But their training doesn’t begin in the air; it starts on the ground. They learn the basics of aviation science - what makes planes fly, how weather affects a plane’s flight, how to read flight maps, and how to navigate.

Benjamin and his fellow cadets are also forced to navigate the racist segregation laws that exist in Alabama. After finishing basic training at the Institute, Benjamin and the other cadets are transferred to the newly built army base, Tuskegee Army Air Field. All of the commanding officers there are white and the airfield is segregated. White soldiers and instructors dine at tables with white tablecloths and served by Black waiters. The Black cadets eat in a separate dining hall with dirt floors. On rainy days, those floors are mud.

The inequitable and unfair treatment at the airfield reminds Benjamin that many white Americans refuse to see him as their equal. But their racism only strengthens Benjamin’s resolve to prove them wrong.


On September 2nd, 1941, less than two months into training, Benjamin sits in the pilot seat of a trainer airplane. His instructor is in the backseat. Benjamin is eager to show he’s mastered his lessons. It’s not just his future he’s worried about. He knows the fate of the Army’s Black pilot training program depends on him.

So he follows the instructor's orders through a variety of air exercises and landings. And after the final descent, he looks back at his teacher for the next set of directions. The instructor gives him an approving nod as he gets out from the backseat. This is the moment Benjamin's been waiting for since he arrived at Tuskegee. He has the go-ahead to fly solo.

Immediately, Benjamin takes the plane back into the air. He goes through the exact maneuvers as before, but for the first time ever, there is no instructor in the back.

When he lands, his fellow cadets cheer. As Benjamin has just become the first Black pilot to fly solo as a member of the U.S. Army Air Forces.

Over the following months, Benjamin and the other Tuskegee cadets continue their training. “Chief” holds them to the highest standard. He knows the War Department will look for any excuse to declare Black pilots unfit for service. And then in March 1942, Benjamin and four other cadets graduate. They’ve proven the “experiment” was a success, and joined the Army’s Air Forces as its first Black pilots.

Following their success, the Army quickly begins training more Black pilots and soon the 99th Squadron has enough pilots for active duty. The Tuskegee Airmen, as they’re known, are well-trained and eager to serve. And the country needs all the help it can get.

After Japan attacked the United States on December 7th, 1941, country entered the war on the side of the United Kingdom, Soviet Union, and China against Japan and its allies, Germany and Italy. But despite their country’s need, Benjamin and the 99th Squadron don’t immediately receive orders. Still, they want to be ready, so while they wait, they continue to train.

Finally, in early 1943, Secretary of War Henry Stimson visits Tuskegee and observes the pilots in action. Stimson was opposed to training Black pilots from the start, but after seeing them in the sky, he declares them “outstanding by any standard.” But now the Tuskegee airmen will have to prove they’re just as outstanding in combat.

Act Three: The 99th’s First Combat Mission

It’s June 9th, 1943, in the air over the Italian island of Pantelleria. It’s been more than a year since Benjamin Davis Jr. and his classmates became the first Black pilots to join the U.S. Army Air Forces. During that time, no group of pilots has trained more, but still, they’ve received no combat experience. That’s about to change.

Today, the men of the 99th squadron are escorting a group of bombers. It begins as a routine mission, not so different from their many training exercises back at Tuskegee. After the bombers hit their target, squadron begins to escort them back to home base.

But that’s when Benjamin sees four German fighters speeding toward them, bullets ripped through the air. And the 99th squadron maneuvers to fire back. Smoke starts to pour from one of the German fighter planes and the other three are forced to retreat. 

It’s the first of many aerial victories for the Tuskegee airmen. They’ve proven that they aren’t just well-trained, they’re ready for combat as well.

But despite their performance, the Tuskegee airmen continue to face discrimination and lack of respect. At one point, a white colonel claims the 99th is not as good as other fighter squadrons, and his accusation is published in Time Magazine. Benjamin travels back home and defends the 99th in front of a US Department of War committee. Finally, a review ordered by the Army Chief of Staff finds the 99th performs equal or better than their white counterparts.

Over the course of the war, the Tuskegee airmen continue to grow in number and reputation. They become the most requested escort group. And when the war ends, the airmen have earned 95 Distinguished Flying Crosses, 14 Bronze Stars, and 8 Purple Hearts. No other escort group is as decorated.

But throughout the entirety of World War II, these airmen fought not just their enemies but discrimination. It is only until several years after the war ends, on July 26th, 1948, that President Truman signs Executive Order 9981, officially desegregating the military. It’s a long overdue measure, one made possible by the bravery and excellence displayed by the Tuskegee airmen who began their training on this day, July 19th, 1941. 


Next onHistory Daily: July 20th, 1974: After a coup d'etat by the Greek military, Turkish forces launch an invasion of Cyprus, dividing the country in two.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Mischa Stanton.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Ruben Abrahams Brosbe.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.