- - Monday, March 10, 2014

Guion “Guy” Bluford, the first African-American astronaut, called Charles Alfred “Chief” Anderson the “Father of African-American aviation” last October as he inducted him into National Aviation Hall of Fame

A pioneering African-American pilot and flight instructor, Chief Anderson (1907-1996) was the guiding force in the creation and training of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen, America’s first African-American military aviators. 

Yet, outside of military aviation circles, the trailblazing black pilot has been an unsung and even unremembered figure.

That began to change recently, when the U.S. Postal Service unveiled a new 70-cent stamp honoring the legacy of Chief Anderson. The two-ounce stamp, available online for one year and in post offices for up to three months, was dedicated during a ceremony at historic Bryn Mawr College on March 13 by USPS administrative judge William Campbell, Jr. 

A Tuskeegee native, Mr. Campbell is the son of Tuskegee Airman William “Wild Bill” Campbell, Sr., who knew Chief Anderson well. Mr. Campbell remembers his father, a wingman on the Tuskegee Airmen’s first combat sortie, reminiscing with Anderson about their younger days flying together over Tuskegee. “You could just see the reverence my father had for Chief,” Mr. Campbell says.

“What an inspiration he was for young folks like me,” says Tuskegee Airman William Broadwater, a Maryland resident who grew up in Pennsylvania idolizing Anderson

“The guy was so natural it was amazing, so relaxed,” he says, praising Chief’s innate flying skills. “I can’t think of a better person, more deserving” of this honor.”

 

Born in Bridgeport, Pa., in 1907, young Charles Anderson was always running after airplanes, much to the chagrin of his grandmother, who raised him for several years in Virginia. At a time when whites “did not carry colored” persons in airplanes, he was rebuffed in his early efforts to find a flight instructor, as Anderson recalled for a 1981 U.S. Air Force oral history project. Persevering despite the obstacles, the aspiring aviator ultimately purchased his own airplane. He taught himself to taxi around the airfield, in emulation of other pilots. But he knew he needed to see pilots in action inside the cockpit, so he struck a bargain with white flyers who wanted to borrow his plane. They were welcome to do so … with one proviso: Anderson had to fly alongside the pilot. 

In 1929 Anderson became one of the first federally licensed African-American pilots. (There was no federal licensing requirement until 1926.) In 1932, he became an air transport pilot, a rating Anderson protege Roosevelt Lewis calls “the PhD of aviation.” Even with the top ticket, however, Anderson was barred from many aviation positions because of his race.

That didn’t stop Anderson from winging his way to a series of racial breakthroughs as an informal ambassador of aviation. He and flying partner Dr. Albert Forsythe became the first African-Americans to pilot a round-trip transcontinental flight in 1933. Later that year, with a trip to Montreal, they became the first blacks to make an international flight. 

The tireless duo crossed more borders during their celebrated 1934 Goodwill Tour to the Caribbean, when they became the first pilots to land a plane on Bahamian soil and opened air routes from the U.S. to remote islands. They continued on to Cuba, where the pair met President Fulgencio Batista, then to Jamaica, where they landed in a natural park. After surmounting engine trouble, followed by more island-hopping, the Goodwill Tour finally ended with a crash while departing Trinidad. Anderson was undeterred. After all, “crack-ups” were not uncommon during the Golden Age of Flight.

After moving to the Washington, D.C. area, Anderson started a flying school in Bailey’s Crossroads, Va. with Noel T. Butler, but local opposition prompted the duo to reconfigure their plane with floats and move it to the Anacostia River, across from the naval air station. In 1937, Anderson and local mechanic John Green began ground school aviation training for D.C. public school students. Educating youth about aviation became Anderson’s life’s mission. 

In 1939, Howard University hired Anderson to lead its training efforts under the newly established Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP), a massive federal program which trained over 430,000 civilian pilots across the U.S. In August of that year Anderson, who regularly encouraged Tuskegee students to pursue aviation, urged a Tuskegee administrator to apply for the CPTP, according to Robert Jakeman’s “The Divided Skies.” His prompting proved to be eventful: Tuskegee’s president and a dean jumped into action and convinced the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) to approve the school’s late application. 

The CAA selected Tuskegee Institute to host a secondary (advanced) flight training program in 1940, also under the CPTP. Lacking qualified instructors for the secondary program, Tuskegee quickly hired Anderson away from Howard, even promising a position for his wife Gertrude. Anderson received aerobatic training in Chicago during the summer, then flew south to lead the civilian program at Tuskegee, where he found himself poised at the leading edge of African-American military aviation training.

In January 1941, the Army unveiled its plans to launch a segregated flying training squadron at Tuskegee. When military officials asked Tuskegee to contract out the primary training, they quickly chose Anderson as the lead civilian instructor. He was respectfully known as “Chief” thereafter, a title of honor for the chief pilot in a flying organization. 

“He was considered the coach of the pilots,” Roscoe Draper, a primary phase instructor pilot at Tuskegee from 1942-1946, told Air Force News Service reporter Randy Roughton.

A pilot’s pilot who flew by the “seat of his pants,” Anderson trained and flew with many of the 2,483 cadets who came through Tuskegee’s Moton Field with hopes of becoming Army aviators.

Chief Anderson “flew airplanes to dispel the myth that black people were not able to fly airplanes,” said Mr. Draper at the stamp unveiling, recalling Charles Lindbergh’s comment that “aviation and golf were for white people.”

“I will always feel I owe him an awful lot,” said Mr. Draper, who will be 95 in May. “Chief Anderson opened doors we never could have approached otherwise.”

Anderson would go on to pilot aircraft well into his 80s. He amassed over 52,000 flight hours, a monumental achievement for any aviator, but particularly impressive considering the short duration of his sorties. “You’ve got to get your hours in,” Chief often told Mildred Carter, a longtime flying companion and Tuskegee’s first woman pilot.

Charles A. “Chief” Anderson passed away on April 13, 1996, in Tuskegee.

For more information, please visit the C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson Legacy Foundation website, http://chiefanderson.com.

Monica Smith is a retired Air Force pilot who writes about African-American and women aviation pioneers. Email: editor@theavnote.com 


 

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