Pioneering pilot James Herman Banning

Pioneering pilot James Herman Banning and Thomas Cox Allen

James Herman Banning was twenty years old when he took his first airplane ride at an air circus in 1920. With that experience, he fell in love with flying and committed himself to becoming a pilot. And in 1926, James became the first African-American aviator to earn a license from the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Six years later, James, and a mechanic, Thomas Cox Allen, became the first African-Americans to fly coast to coast. Affectionately referring to themselves as the “Flying Hobos,” the pair flew for almost forty-two hours over twenty-one days, as they needed to raise money at stops along the way. When they landed in New York, the mayor honored them with a key to the city.

Only a few months later, as James worked to earn money to bring his coast to coast plane home, he joined an airshow in San Diego. But there he was not permitted to pilot a plane because of his race. Flying as a passenger in a plane piloted by someone less experienced, the plane stalled and crashed. Both men passed away. 


  • Photograph is of James Herman Banning and Thomas Cox Allen, James is wearing the dark glasses.
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  • Oklahoma Historical Society 21412.BH734, Z. P. Meyers/Barney Hillerman Photographic Collection, OHS