Anderson, Charles Alfred “Chief”
Father of African American Aviation/PilotEnshrined 2013 1907-1996
Charles Alfred Anderson Sr. was born February 9, 1907 in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania to Iverson and Janie Anderson.
Fascinated by airplanes, by the time Anderson was 20 he had saved enough money for flying lessons; however, no one would teach a young black man to fly. Not deterred, Anderson attended aviation ground school, learned airplane mechanics, and hung around airports, picking up information from white pilots wherever he could.
Realizing the only way he’d learn to fly was by owning his own airplane, he purchased a Velie Monocoupe with personal savings and loans from friends and family. Members of a flying club eventually allowed him to join, but instruction was not offered. With growing confidence, it was not long before the Anderson taught himself to take off – and land – safely.
A fellow club member and licensed pilot had no airplane but sought to visit his mother on weekends in Atlantic City. The pair struck a deal, the pilot renting Anderson’s Monocoupe and allowing him to come along. Thus Anderson was able gain cross country experience on the trips and earn his pilot’s license in August 1929.
Seeking to obtain an air transport pilot’s license but again finding his race an obstacle, help came from Ernest Buehl – “The Flying Dutchman” – a German aviator who had been invited to come to the United States in 1920 to help open transcontinental airmail routes.
Under Buehl’s tutelage, in 1932 Anderson became the first African American to receive an air transport license.
That same year, Anderson married his childhood sweetheart, Gertrude Nelson of Ardmore, Pennsylvania on June 24th. The Anderson’s would eventually have two sons, Alfred and Charles.
In July 1933 Anderson met Dr. Albert E. Forsythe, a black physician and pilot that shared his goal of introducing fellow blacks to the field of aviation. Among the pair’s record-setting and attention getting flights was first transcontinental round trip flight by black pilots from Atlantic City, New Jersey to Los Angeles, California.
The duo made additional ‘first flights’ in aviation, capturing worldwide attention in 1934 when they flew their Lambert Monocoupe, The Booker T. Washington, on a Pan American Good Will Tour.
By September 1938 Anderson was instructing in the Washington, D.C. area when he was hired as a flight instructor for the Civilian Pilot Training Program at Howard University.
In 1940, Anderson was recruited by the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, as the Chief Civilian Flight Instructor for its new program to train black pilots. He developed a training program, taught the first advanced course, and earned his nickname, “Chief.”
In March, 1941, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was touring the Institute’s hospital. Knowing of the flight program, she asked to meet its chief instructor.
The first Lady said she had always heard that “colored people couldn’t fly,” but it appeared that Anderson could. Despite the protests of her security detail, she asked Anderson for a flight.
Anderson and his delighted passenger returned 40 minutes later. No doubt her experience was a boost to the Tuskegee Experiment, recently established by President Roosevelt’s administration to explore the possibility of training black pilots for military service.
By June 1941 Anderson was selected by the Army as Tuskegee’s Ground Commander and Chief Instructor for aviation cadets of the 99th Pursuit Squadron, America’s first all-black fighter squadron. The 99th would eventually join three other squadrons of Tuskegee Airmen in the 332nd Fighter Group, the “Red Tails.”
The 450 Tuskegee Airmen who saw combat flew 1,378 combat missions, destroyed 260 enemy planes, and earned over 150 Flying Crosses among numerous other awards.
Postwar, Anderson would provide ground and flight training to not only black and white students under the G.I. Bill, but also Army and Air Force ROTC cadets. He also provided aircraft and engine maintenance service and sold aircraft in the Southeast and Southwestern U.S.
In 1967, Anderson co-founded Negro Airmen International, including the establishment of a summer flight academy for youth, and he continued to instruct students until 1989.
Failing health finally grounded Anderson in the mid 1990’s. He died peacefully in his sleep on April 13, 1996, in Tuskegee, Alabama.
Anderson never sought fame, recognition or fortune for his accomplishments, yet he touched the lives of thousands of pilots, both civilian and military, many of whose names are found throughout aviation history books.
Tonight it is our honor and privilege to welcome into the National Aviation Hall of Fame, the “Father of African American Aviation,” and a mentor of mentors, C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson.