The history of black aviation is not a terribly long one, inextricably bound up in American racial prejudice. Until World War II, even the American military refused to admit black servicemen into its flying ranks, and in 1941 there were only 102 black U.S. citizens licensed as pilots.
Three of those pioneers of flying, including retired Gen. Benjamin Davis, were at the National Air and Space Museum yesterday, for a preview of a new exhibit called "Black Wings: The American Black in Aviation," which opens today. The show includes a model of a P-51 Mustang, with the name "Miss Pelt" scrawled across its side, flown in World War II by Clarence "Lucky" Lester. "That was the name of a girlfriend I had in those days," Lester said. " Of all my missions I only saw action one day -- July 18, 1944 -- and shot down 3 German ME 109s. But I was lucky. White guys had to fly 45 or 50 missions before they got relieved. There were less of us, so we had to fly 70 missions. Which meant you could get shot at an extra 25 times."
The exhibit traces the history of black avaition to Eugene Bullard and Bessie Coleman, said to be the first licensed black pilots. Largely through Coleman's influence, several black flying clubs were started in the United States. The largest was the Coffey School of Aeronautics at Chicago's Harlem Airport. A club member there, William Powell, wrote a book called "Black Wings," a polemic that decried discrimination in aviation and urged black men and women to "fill the air with black wings."
Beyond the realities of the nation's racial segregation, blacks were also prevented from flying by the high costs of aviation. It was not until seven years after Lindbergh's historic crossing of the Atlantic that the first black team managed to pilot the Spirit of Booker T. Washington from Miami to Nassau.
Another aviation milestone was the 1932 transcontinental flight of Herman Banning and Thomas Allen, who called themselves "The Flying Hobos." Piloting a $400 Eagle Rock biplane, they spent $100 and 21 days flying from Los Angeles to New York.
"It was tough learning to fly back then," the 75-year-old Allen said yesterday. "I had my first lesson in 1924 when I was 17 years old from Bob Tarbutton, who had a little field near Oklahoma City. I traded him a saxophone for a $300 flying course and owed him a balance of $200, which I had to work out at the field. When it was time for me to solo, he wanted a $500 bond to cover a plane that was worth $250. I finally took it up one day when he was away from the field. It was the only plane in Oklahoma, and he knew it was me. He was ready to kill me but then he decided to exploit it. He used to tell people that if he could teach a Negro to fly, he could teach anybody."
Allen had a few minor gripes with the show yesterday. "There were a lot of blacks involved in aviation before Bessie Coleman," he said, "especially Paul Lawrence Dunbar, who worked with the Wright Brothers."
But Allen's biggest complaint was about a photograph which the Air and Space Museum identified as an image of Allen and Banning standing beside their Eagle Rock plane.
"First of all it was a biplane," he said, which the plane in the photo certainly wasn't. "Next of all, that ain't us. I guess all pilots look alike to them."
A Smithsonian spokesman said yesterday that the photo had come from the museum's archives and would have to be checked.
"I hope that's not so," the spokesman said, "but he ought to be right."