For centuries, man watched the birds and dreamed of flight. Now he sits on the runway and dreams of crashing—the terms wind shear, black box, de-icing nattering in his brain. Only a few, like Charles Alfred “Chief” Anderson, 81, at present skimming his four-seater Cessna 1,000 feet above eastern Alabama, still thrill to a swooping turn in a small plane. A jovial, bear-shaped man, Anderson was a true pioneer—a chauffeur’s son who taught himself to fly at a time when blacks were being chased from airports with brooms, then went on to earn a commercial license and train America’s first black fighter pilots. “Chief Anderson is a very important figure in aviation,” says retired Air Force Gen. Chuck Yeager, “a darn good pilot and a fabulous old man.”
So it comes as a surprise that just last year somebody tried to kill him, slipping the cotter pins from the controls of his plane. Professional jealousy is Anderson’s guess. Back in the ’60s, at the height of the civil rights movement, someone sanded his oil tank. Glancing out the window, a reporter asks if people often tamper with his planes.
“It hasn’t been that bad!” Anderson calls out. But the truth is, it has. Aviation at times has been openly racist, and few men have had to work as hard as Charles Anderson to fulfill the dream of flight.
Banking sharply to the right, Anderson swoops back over a verdant carpet of piney woods and farms. Far below, another small plane floats like a moth. Tuskegee University slides into sight, the great school for blacks founded by Booker T. Washington in 1881 that later became the fountain-head of black aviation. Eventually the Cessna comes coasting down, low over cotton and kudzu, to a landing at Moton Field. It was here that Anderson gave America’s black World War II pilots, known as Tuskegee Airmen, their initial flight instruction.
As the plane jounces to a stop, Anderson recalls another time when his plane was sabotaged—in Chicago, in the late ’30s, when he was taking aerobatic training at an all-white flying school. “They told me I didn’t pass, that I couldn’t do the maneuvers well enough,” he says. “So I had a black mechanic check out the plane, and he found out the rudder cables had been shortened. Nobody trying to kill me, you understand. They just didn’t want me flying.”
Anderson first took up a plane in 1928, near his hometown of Bryn Mawr, Pa. It was the air age: Lindbergh’s flight in the Spirit of St. Louis had galvanized the public the year before. Like a messenger angel, the airplane seemed to herald a new day—for Caucasians. Blacks were thought to lack the brains and the guts to fly. In Lindbergh’s view, aviation was like polo—”one of the priceless possessions which permit the White race to live at all in a pressing sea of Yellow, Black and Brown.”
In a climate like that, the 21-year-old Anderson—who’d been fascinated by airplanes since he was 8—was regarded as a kook. Yet somehow he coaxed loans out of a few black neighbors and bought himself a $2,500 Velie Monocoupe. He attempted his first takeoffs and landings alone.
Anderson got a break when a young society blade, Russell Thaw, asked to borrow his plane. Thaw wanted to make weekend trips to Atlantic City to visit his mother, Evelyn Nesbit, whose infamous entanglement with architect Stanford White is portrayed in Ragtime. Anderson went along. Though Thaw refused to instruct him (“It was taboo for a white man to teach a Negro how to fly,” says Anderson), the young man watched and learned.
Even so, he soon soloed his plane into a tree. Six decades later, you can still see the long scar that wanders across his forehead. “All my scalp went back here behind my head,” says Anderson with his deep-bucket laugh. “I remember reaching it forward and patting it down.” Seeing his wound, his mother, Janie, tried to chop up his plane with an ax.
Nevertheless, Anderson began preparing for a commercial license—studying meteorology and engine mechanics on his own. But he knew he also had to master some fancy flying. “Other pilots would talk around the hangar about tailspins and 360-degree turns, but when I’d walk up to listen, they’d start talking about something else. So I had to figure things out for myself. First time I tried a tailspin, I didn’t get out of it right away,” he says with a foxy smile. “Those guys were surprised to see me come back.”
Stretching the envelope all by himself, Anderson soon smashed up a second aircraft, whereupon he began running numbers for a local racketeer so he could afford to rent planes. At last he found a teacher, Ernest Buehl, a German immigrant. “In them days a colored man in an airplane, it just never was known,” says Buehl, now 92. “Anderson had been to all the other airports surrounding Philadelphia. People really condemned him and called him names. But, oh boy, how he would like to fly.”
Anderson credits Buehl with refining his technique and with forcing a federal examiner to give him his commercial pilot’s test. “When the government agent came,” Buehl recalls in accented English, “he took me aside and he called me everything under the sun because I would even attempt to get that man into an airplane. I finally tell him, ‘Look, I’m a foreigner. I’m a citizen by the paper. That guy’s born here.’ And I threatened to make a little trouble for this guy. So he finally took him up and kept him up a considerable time longer than a white man. He really put him through the works.”
Anderson, then 25, was awarded aviation’s top license; for many years, among a handful of black aviators, he was the only one to hold it. That, combined with the dramatic long-distance flights he went on to undertake, made him a hero to many young blacks in the ’30s. “I read about Chief Anderson for years before I flew,” says Span Watson, a former Tuskegee Airman now with the FAA. “He was the man. He was our star.”
In 1933 Anderson and his partner, Dr. Albert Forsythe, made their first showcase flight, a transcontinental jaunt from Atlantic City to Los Angeles and back. The flight, the first round-trip across America by blacks, was made in a 95-hp Fairchild. It was intended to proclaim racial pride and to inspire more blacks to get into aviation. Forsythe, a surgeon, was the money man. (“He was a gentleman,” says Anderson, “but he would never be segregated. Once in a movie house he was asked to move. The usher pulled him straight out of the seat, and he broke her arm.”) Forsythe wasn’t wealthy enough to afford the best plane or the best equipment—so the two men did without navigational instruments, a radio, even parachutes. Airborne, they puzzled out their locations with a Rand McNally road map until it blew away. At night they flew holding a flashlight out the window. Even so, they arrived at a Los Angeles airport in 2½ days—not to the public hysteria that still greeted Lindbergh, but to a mostly black crowd of 2,000, proudly applauding.
The next year, Forsythe and Anderson embarked on their Pan-American Goodwill Flight around the Caribbean. In another small plane, christened the Booker T. Washington, the two fliers took off from Miami in November 1934.
They arrived at their first stop, in the Bahamas, after dark. No plane had ever landed on Nassau before, so throngs surged into the road when they heard an engine in the sky. Anderson made a couple of passes overhead before people finally realized they had to get out of the way. Then a double wall of cars lined up, shining their headlights to illuminate a landing strip.
Over the next several weeks, Anderson and Forsythe island-hopped from Nassau to Cuba and Jamaica, through tropical rain “so heavy,” says Anderson, “we had to get right down over the water to fly. That rain peeled the paint off the struts.” In Jamaica, black separatist Marcus Garvey welcomed them with a case of rum. The two aviators flew on to enthusiastic receptions in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Grenada and Trinidad, landing on racetracks and rutted fields. Leaving Trinidad, the Booker T. Washington snagged in a stand of bamboo and crash-landed. End of tour.
By this time married to Gertrude Nelson and thinking about starting a family, Anderson worked as a flying instructor in Virginia. In 1940 Tuskegee Institute hired him to start a training program. Eleanor Roosevelt came to Tuskegee in 1941 to visit its infantile paralysis clinic. She’d heard about the black aviation program and asked to have a look. “First thing she said was, ‘I always heard colored people couldn’t fly airplanes,’ ” says Anderson. “She was amazed.” Anderson invited the First Lady for a spin in his Piper Cub, and over the objections of her aides, she accepted—leaving her entourage dithering on the ground. “While we were up there,” says Anderson, “she told me she had planned to take flying lessons herself with Amelia Earhart.”
Their flight together—breathlessly reported in the newspapers—dealt a last blow to the Army’s exclusion of blacks from the Air Corps. Within a month the first training of black military pilots began. It was called the Tuskegee Experiment.
But that didn’t mean that the U.S. military considered nonwhites ready for air combat. In fact, when Pearl Harbor was bombed later that year, some American brass speculated that German mercenaries must have been flying Japanese planes—with those eyes, they asked, how could the Japanese be fighter pilots? Such was the atmosphere in which Anderson, the primary flight instructor, and his first cadets labored. “It was an experiment designed to fail,” he says. “The Air Corps started the program with just 12 blacks, and some of those weren’t qualified. Then some of the white press came to ridicule it. I was passing by this house one time, and I look in and see one of our guys in there playing the piano and photographers taking pictures. Make it look like this is what the niggers are doing at Tuskegee, just playing the piano.”
Local townsfolk were hostile too, fearing that black fliers would soon be crashing into their homes or waving at white women from the skies. Once Anderson was seized by police and taken to the local Ku Klux Klan headquarters for a beating—only to be released when the Grand Dragon, who hoped for flying lessons himself, intervened.
Out of this crucible, though, came the first black pilots—the men who formed the all-black 99th Pursuit Squadron. Soon Tuskegee became a mecca for eager black fliers, far more of them than the Air Corps wanted. “Because of this predetermined quota,” says Herb Carter, a member of the 99th, “you could get washed out for anything”—from a bogus medical problem to wearing your hat crooked. Coleman Young, now Mayor of Detroit, believes he was dismissed as a Tuskegee Airman for attending an antidiscrimination rally.
For a long time, even those who earned their silver wings couldn’t get into the war. Even after they completed their advanced drills with Army flight instructors, these pilots were kept in Alabama. The average Tuskegee Airman logged two or three times the normal number of training hours while the Army debated what to do with them. “Frustrated black pilots did all kinds of ridiculous things to let off steam,” says Anderson. “Six or seven killed themselves in unnecessary accidents.” One restive pilot, named Dawson, died trying to double-loop a railroad bridge. Another flew too low over Lake Martin, caught his propeller in the water and flipped over. “A lot of good men weren’t brought into combat,” says Anderson, with sudden tears. “It hurts to this day.”
The 99th finally got overseas in April 1943, under the command of Lt. Col. B.O. Davis Jr., a Tuskegee Airman who later became the Air Force’s first black general. They were sent to North Africa, where they were confined mostly to low-altitude strafing, and then on to Italy, where they got their big chance at Anzio. When they were released at last to dogfight with German aircraft, men Anderson had taught to fly shot down an astonishing eight planes in one day and 17 over the course of the campaign.
After Anzio, the 99th—having earned some respect—was eventually joined by three other black squadrons, all trained at Tuskegee. Together they formed the 332nd Fighter Group, which, while escorting scores of heavy bombers over Central Europe, never lost one to enemy aircraft. Overall, the 450 black fliers who saw combat—fewer than half of those commissioned—were awarded 744 Air Medals and Oak Leaf Clusters and 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses.
But apparently that wasn’t enough. “Right after the war,” says Anderson, “none of the pilots of the 332nd could get employment as fliers.” Even now, little has changed. Out of 50,000 commercial pilots in America, fewer than 200 are black. In July 1988 a congressional committee castigated carriers like United Airlines (26 black pilots out of 6,300) and TWA (15 out of 2,700) following testimony about black fliers being rejected for an array of spurious reasons. “Whites just assume the whole field of aviation is theirs,” says Anderson, who trained fliers at Tuskegee until 1984. (Anderson was forced to shut down the thriving air transport business that he operated on school property during the ’50s.) “It’s like I tell my students: The closer you get to an airport, the whiter it gets.”
That is why Chief Anderson has never missed a chance to show his colors in the cockpit. “When I was flying over the Caribbean with Dr. Forsythe, we were passing over this ocean liner,” he recalls. “Dr. Forsythe says, ‘Get down close to the boat so they can see that blacks are flying this airplane.’ So I swung right down by it, almost at deck level. That crew was positively surprised.” A big chuckle. “Gave them something to think about.”