Mrs. White, the daughter of a sharecropper and a midwife, was drawn to aviation by her husband, Hulon “Pappy” White, a mechanic who served during World War II in Tuskegee, Ala., as a mechanic for the storied unit of black military pilots known as the Tuskegee Airmen.
The couple had moved from Texas to Tuskegee, where Mrs. White decided to try her hand in the cockpit, training under her husband and his colleagues. She took her maiden flights on a Taylorcraft plane that, by her telling, was a cinch to fly.
“All you had to do was get in the plane, and the pilot gets with you and tells you what he would like for you to do,” she once told an interviewer. “First thing you know, you’re flying.” She received her pilot’s license in Alabama on March 26, 1946.
Dorothy Cochrane, a curator in the aeronautics department of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum, credited Mrs. White with overcoming the double barrier of perceptions, widespread at the time, that neither women nor African Americans were qualified to fly airplanes.
Mrs. White and her husband, with his service to the Tuskegee Airmen, “were there at the forefront of continuing to spread aviation throughout the African American community and prove to everyone that they were equal partners in aviation,” Cochrane said.
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Trailblazers who preceded Mrs. White included Bessie Coleman, also from Texas, who according to the National Aviation Hall of Fame became the “first civilian licensed African-American pilot in the world” when she received a pilot’s license in France in 1921. Willa Brown became the first African American woman to receive a pilot’s license in the United States, in 1938.
“There weren’t too many black people flying,” Mrs. White told an ABC News affiliate in Texas last year. “I said, ‘I can learn to fly,’ and I learned to fly. It was easy.”
Mrs. White recalled with emotion the day in 1941 when first lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited the Tuskegee Army Air Field, where — overruling the Secret Service — she requested a ride with Charles A. Anderson, the chief instructor.
Their flight lasted more than an hour and drew national attention to the black pilots at a time when the U.S. military and American society in general were riven by racial segregation. In 1948, President Harry Truman signed an order desegregating the armed forces.
By then, Mrs. White and her husband had returned to Texas, where they and two Tuskegee Airmen established the Sky Ranch Flying Service in the outskirts of Houston. The operation catered mainly to the African American community, providing flight training and charter and delivery services.
The operation shuttered in 1948, amid changes in the allowances of the G.I. Bill that provided educational assistance to returning veterans. But “the pioneering aspect of Sky Ranch,” according to the Lone Star Flight Museum in Houston, “made its mark on the community.”
“It was just everyday life for them,” Bailey once told the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals, referring to the work her great-aunt and great-uncle pursued. “They don’t really think of themselves as pioneers. It was just the life they were living.”
In 2018, at nearly 105, Mrs. White was inducted into the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame in a class of inductees that also included James A. Lovell Jr., commander of the Apollo 13 space mission. She also received the Trailblazer Award from the Black Pilots of America for her “pioneering spirit in forging a path to the field of aviation.”
Azellia Jones, one of 10 children, was born on June 3, 1913, in the area of Gonzalez, Tex., east of San Antonio. Her husband, whom she married in 1936, was a childhood sweetheart.
Mrs. White was a licensed beautician and worked after her husband’s flight school closed at a department store in Houston, said a godson, James Miller, who owns an avionics business in that city and has extensively researched Mrs. White’s career.
Her husband, who became a mechanics instructor, died in 1995, and they had a son who died at birth. Mrs. White had no immediate survivors.
During her time in Tuskegee, Mrs. White would sometimes fly a niece to Montgomery or Birmingham for shopping excursions. Years later, she reflected that as an African American in the Jim Crow South, she had judged it safer to travel through the air than on unfamiliar roads.
“She just said she just felt free when she was up in the plane flying,” Bailey recalled.
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