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“Black Wings” documentary sets Black aviation record straight

By Dwight Hobbes

Black Wings (Smithsonian Channel – DVD) brilliantly documents that African American aviation didn’t begin and end with the legendary Tuskegee Airmen. There were, for that matter, black airwomen. Throughout the 20th century, from biplanes to barnstorming to finally being allowed into combat to commercial air liners and eventually becoming astronauts. 

Producer-writer Dan Wolf presumably directed (no one’s credited), delivering a gem of historic footage that had escaped general notice and well informed narration, including interviews, relating a fascinating account. 

Von Hardesty, curator at the National Air and Space Museum, says of the bigotry that kept qualified pilots grounded, “Blacks had the same dreams, the same aspirations, the same love of flight. But they were barred for social reasons.” Regrettably, battling racism has yet to put much of a dent in their being just as sexist as whites. Tuskegee jet fighters who escorted and never lost a bomber are deservedly celebrated, where is a bio pic or, indeed, any widespread championing across African America of the first black aviator, Bessie Coleman? Who brought herself up from abject poverty to work days, teach herself French nights, then go train in France, because no school here would let her earn a license. 

There’s pilot William Powell who, in the late 20’s, did acknowledge Coleman, naming a flight school after her. And was idealistic enough to reason equality in the sky would lead to acceptance in society. We know what became of that, despite his enlisting the support of boxing immortal Joe Louis. 

It’s unavoidable that any accurate recounting detail that the amazing accomplishments of these fliers was largely done in the face of discrimination (airports that wouldn’t service them, fuel suppliers who refused to sell to them). Good old-fashioned racism, as American as apple pie, was a fact of black life, period. More important, though, is that these figures existed. Just like the Wright Brothers. Before Amelia Earhart. Some set flight records – not just for black pilots, but for all of aviation. For instance, Gus McCloud going clear to the North Pole in an open air cockpit against life-threatening odds.

 Ultimately, Black Wings broadens the history books, adding pages inclusive up to 2011, a true find for anyone interested in seeing the record set straight. 

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