History of Black Aviators Shared Through Special Exhibit

Published in Midwest Flyer – December 2017/January 2018

We’ve all heard of Amelia Earhart, but have you ever heard of Bessie Coleman? Both were adventurous young women who soon found themselves captive of the dream, aspiration, and sheer love of the world of flight. In contrast to Earhart who trained stateside, Coleman, who was black, had to make her way to France where, in only seven months, she would earn her international pilot’s license.” Al Whitaker, a pilot himself and the son of a Tuskegee airman, would relate this rather disturbing fact when speaking to the general public on the subject of African-American aviation history.

The origin of Whitaker’s efforts to enlighten the public on black involvement, contributions and achievements in aviation stem from an Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) goal to fly a million youngsters (“Young Eagles”) before the centennial of the Wright Brothers’ first flight, December 17, 2003. As a volunteer pilot at his first EAA Young Eagles fly-in, Whitaker noted: “By the end of the day, more than 100 boys and girls had been flown, none of whom were minorities.”

Recognizing the value of the Young Eagles program, Whitaker took it upon himself to bring this positive experience to the African-American community in Madison, Wisconsin. He contacted fellow airmen willing to donate their time and airplanes. Neighbors and friends grilled burgers, guided the attendees, and guarded them against accidental injury. For three consecutive years, at his private airport (Der Schwarzwald Aerodrome), just northwest of Waterloo, Wisconsin, Whitaker held Young Eagles fly-ins. In support, Madison area vendors donated food and beverage and local church groups identified prospective attendees. Those Young Eagles were schooled in the basics of aerodynamics, navigation, communications, and meteorology before receiving their flight. Additionally, with the permission of the Smithsonian Museum, Whitaker was able to assemble a photo exhibit of pioneer black aviators. This array provided a visual aid useful for acquainting participants with knowledge of their aviation heritage. Recently, the exhibit was put on display in the gallery of the Overture Center in Madison. A well-attended reception for the exhibit took place in the rotunda lobby on November 4, 2017. It was followed by the screening of “The Flying Ace,” a 1926 film produced and directed by an African-American, featuring an all-black cast.

From the outset, Whitaker’s commitment to this project has been out of respect for his father, his father’s fellow Tuskegee airmen, and the pioneer African-American aviators who have gone before him.

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