Aviation Pioneer: The Charles Alfred “Chief” Anderson Story

It was the early years of aviation, a time when the idea of flying was still science fiction for most and a marvel for the lucky few who got to see an airplane in flight. And then there were the pilots, the brave magicians who flew these automated birds.

Charles Alfred Anderson dreamt of being a pilot, of being at the helm of an airplane flying into the skies. He had been fascinated by flight from a young age, all through his upbringing in the 1910s in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania.

For black Americans of the time, career dreams often came with the understanding of the extra challenges due to segregation and racism. Such was the case with aviation in the 1920s and 1930s, as black Americans faced significant obstacles in pursuing careers. With flight schools and training programs segregated, opportunities for black pilots were scarce.

Alfred, however, was undeterred. He enrolled in aviation ground school, where he learned airplane mechanics. And as much as he could, he spent time at airports, learning from pilots and others there. Understanding that further learning would require his own plane as traditional flight schools still refused to accept him, Alfred saved diligently to purchase one. Then he found people willing to teach him. He also gained experience experimenting with flying on his own.

In 1929, his relentless pursuit earned him his private pilot’s license, making Alfred one of the first black Americans to achieve this milestone. Throughout the 1930s, he set many firsts for a black American pilot.

Alfred’s accomplishments as a pilot were only the beginning of his contributions to aviation. Perhaps his most notable contribution to aviation history was working with the Tuskegee Airmen, the first all-Black squadron of military pilots, during World War II. In 1940, Alfred was invited to join the Tuskegee Institute’s Civilian Pilot Training Program in Alabama as its chief instructor.

While there, a significant event that brought attention to Alfred and the Tuskegee program occurred in 1941 when First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited. Despite prevailing prejudices against the abilities of black pilots, she insisted on flying with Alfred, telling her security, who objected to her taking the flight, “Don’t tell the First Lady what she can and can’t do!”

Upon landing 40 minutes later, a delighted Eleanor remarked, “Well I see you can fly, all right!”

Charles Alfred Anderson with Eleanor Roosevelt, sitting in the airplane, Charles in front while Eleanor sits in the back, 1941
Charles Alfred Anderson with Eleanor Roosevelt, 1941

This flight became known as the “The Flight That Changed History.” Up to that point, no black American had ever flown for the Army Air Corps. The Roosevelt administration had recently established the Tuskegee Airmen Experiment to potentially include black pilots in the military. This flight gave the initiative more momentum. And for the Tuskegee Airmen, it boosted morale while garnering significant government support and private donations to help with new resources for the program.

Under Alfred’s guidance, or “Chief,” as people now affectionately called him, the Tuskegee Airmen developed into highly skilled aviators for the U.S. Air Force. During the war, they flew over 15,000 sorties and earned more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses. Their exemplary performance helped challenge the prevailing racist beliefs about black Americans’ abilities and courage and helped the U.S. win the war.

After the war, Alfred continued advocating for the integration of black Americans into all aviation sectors, working with various aviation organizations, including the Federal Aviation Administration, to promote diversity within the industry. In addition, he served as an instructor and mentor to many young aviators.

In recognition of his many contributions to aviation, Alfred received numerous accolades throughout his life. These honors included the prestigious Distinguished Flying Cross and the Federal Aviation Administration’s Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award. In 2013, a year after his death, Alfred was posthumously inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame, solidifying his place among the greatest figures in American aviation history.

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