Civilian Pilot Training Program

Prior to WWII in 1938 Robert H. Hinckley a member of the CAA came up with the idea of the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP), which was planned to be an experiment in vocational training. The expected results would give a boost to creating pilots for the armed services with a pool of knowledgeable pilots. The program was not at first offered to Historically Black Colleges and took a student Yancy Williams to sue the federal Government to include only seven HBCUs in the program. These were Howard, Hampton, West Virginia State, Delaware State, North Carolina A&T, Lincoln University of Missouri, and Tuskegee Institute. The Coffey School of Aeronautics run by Willa Brown and located at Harlem Airport in Oak Lawn Illinois also offered a full range of non-college credit CPTP and War Training Services and was the hub of Negro Civil Air Patrol activity after that program was conceived in 1941. Tuskegee almost did not become a CPTP Program because it did not have an airport, but Dr. Fred Patterson and George L. Washington were determined. With students providing the labor and Alumni donations Moton Field was built.

In organizing the 99th Pursuit Squadron, the Air Corps made a positive effort to avoid the worst aspects of segregation by creating an authentic and highly professional flying unit, similar in all respects to white pursuit squadrons except for the color of its personnel. In March 1941 the Army called for volunteers on a first-come, first­ served basis for the squadron, which was to be composed of 35 pilots and a ground crew of 278 men. The selection system was the same as for white pursuit squadrons. Preference would be given to pilot recruits who had CAA training, and in fact the final 35 candidates were chosen from CAA secondary course graduates. Maintenance crews were required to have at least a high school education, and pilot applicants had to have completed at least two years of college. Maintenance crews would be trained at Chanute Field. Men qualifying as pilots would be commissioned in the Air Corps as second lieutenants and trained at TAAF, initially by white instructors.

Looking back, it seems clear to me that the Air Corps set and maintained high qualification requirements for the 99th. The corps made a conscious effort to select the best black aircraft maintenance, armament, communications, and supply people that the basic training centers could produce. Black enlisted people already in the service were undoubtedly selected because of their high qualifications and expressed desire. The cream of the crop of black enlisted personnel was available at the time, and from personal experience I can attest that the people assigned to the squadron were highly qualified. The requirement for two years of college was later eased as we approached Pearl Harbor and the Air Corps tried to find qualified applicants for pilot training who had not been to college.

I was convinced that my professional future in the Air  Corps would have to be based upon my own qualification as a pilot and assuming command of the 99th. On 19 July 1941, General Weaver addressed us at a ceremony at Tuskegee Institute inaugurating the flying training of blacks. “The eyes of your country and the eyes of your people are upon you,” he said. “The success of the venture depends upon you. . . . You cannot be inoculated  with the ability  to fly The life of a flying student is no bed of roses.” Contrary to the general’s predictions, I found the life of a flying student completely agreeable, especially compared with the life of a professor. From my entry into flying school until graduation in March 1942, I was mostly free of administrative duties and able to devote myself to my almost forgotten first love flying.

Late in July 1941, I and  12 aviation cadets, the first of many classes to be trained at TAAF, started ground training in a barrack at Tuskegee Institute . I was appointed  commandant  of cadets,  but that job was easy because my fellow students were so willing and eager. We had no discipline problems of any kind. Five of us went on to win our wings, and each washout was an unhappy experience for those who remained.

My classmates were an especially fine group of young Americans, selected after rigid examinations at military bases all over the United States. The backgrounds of this first group bore evidence of the careful criteria that had been applied to them. Marion Carter and Charles Brown came from active artillery units. John Anderson, an all­ American from Toledo University, was a 16-letter man and a straight ­ A student. Theodore Brown had bachelor’s and master ‘s degrees from Northwestern University and was one course short of a doctorate. Several of the cadets had participated in the Civilian Pilot Training Program. Lemuel Custis, a policeman from Hartford and a Howard University graduate , won his wings and became an outstanding combat pilot. Mac Ross, an inspector at an iron works in Ohio; George (“Spanky”) Roberts, a graduate of West Virginia State College and CPTP; and Charles DeBow, a graduate in  business  administration from Hampton Institute, were also commissioned as rated pilots after completing their training. My relationship with these cadets was in­ formal and good. As the first group of black trainees with a serious chance of being accepted by the Army Air Corps, we had an excep­tional sense of unity and mutual respect. In August we started flying . Primary training took place under white instructors at Moton Field . Throughout our training, our instructors were exclusively white commissioned Army Air Corps officers. Chief Anderson and his corps of black flying instructors took over primary training for all succeeding classes, after my class had moved on to TAAF for basic and advanced training.

Then as now, most washouts in military flying training occurred in primary.  All over the nation, flying schools like Moton operated under contract with the Air Corps and eliminated students who demonstrated less than the desired potential. For me flying was a complete, unadulterated joy. It was summer in Alabama, and flying over the green trees, the streams, and the orderly plots of brown farmland below was more exhilarating than anything I could have imagined. During my first few flights, the instructor occupied the back seat. He was completely in control, and I had to comply with his every wish. Soon he had me control the movement of the plane, putting it in the various attitudes he had demonstrated. We were flying a primary trainer (PT-17), a rugged biplane with a radial engine that I could manhandle and horse around with in the air to my heart’s content.

After I had logged six hours of dual flights, I was ready for my first solo flight. On the morning of 2 September, my instructor went up with me and gave me some simulated forced landings. In case of engine failure, a pilot has to be aware at all times of his options to land. Sitting in the back seat, the instructor suddenly retarded the throttle to idle, and I had to glide the airplane to a position in the air that would enable me to land. If I let my nose get too high, or if my airspeed got dangerously low in the process, I would have failed the test, but all indications were that we would have walked away from an emergency landing.

Then I completed a few “touch -and- go” landings, putting the wheels on the ground, applying the throttle, and taking the plane back up for a “go around” in the traffic pattern. After the last landing, the instructor took his parachute, got out of the rear cockpit, and told me to take it up alone. This was what I had been waiting for. Up until this moment, he had watched my every move, but I had not received any real indication about how I was doing. Now I knew that he approved. I took it up and went over some of the maneuvers I had performed under his instruction. It was my airplane.

Late in July 1941, I and  12 aviation cadets, the first of many classes to be trained at TAAF, started ground training in a barrack at Tuskegee Institute . I was appointed  commandant  of cadets,  but that job was easy because my fellow students were so willing and eager. We had no discipline problems of any kind. Five of us went on to win our wings, and each washout was an unhappy experience for those who remained.

My classmates were an especially fine group of young Americans, selected after rigid examinations at military bases all over the United States. The backgrounds of this first group bore evidence of the careful criteria that had been applied to them. Marion Carter and Charles Brown came from active artillery units. John Anderson, an all­ American from Toledo University, was a 16-letter man and a straight ­ A student. Theodore Brown had bachelor’s and master ‘s degrees from Northwestern University and was one course short of a doctorate. Several of the cadets had participated in the Civilian Pilot Training Program. Lemuel Custis, a policeman from Hartford and a Howard University graduate , won his wings and became an outstanding combat pilot. Mac Ross, an inspector at an iron works in Ohio; George (“Spanky”) Roberts, a graduate of West Virginia State College and CPTP; and Charles DeBow, a graduate in  business  administration from Hampton Institute, were also commissioned as rated pilots after completing their training. My relationship with these cadets was in­ formal and good. As the first group of black trainees with a serious chance of being accepted by the Army Air Corps, we had an excep­tional sense of unity and mutual respect. In August we started flying . Primary training took place under white instructors at Moton Field . Throughout our training, our instructors were exclusively white commissioned Army Air Corps officers. Chief Anderson and his corps of black flying instructors took over primary training for all succeeding classes, after my class had moved on to TAAF for basic and advanced training.

Then as now, most washouts in military flying training occurred in primary.  All over the nation, flying schools like Moton operated under contract with the Air Corps and eliminated students who demonstrated less than the desired potential. For me flying was a complete, unadulterated joy. It was summer in Alabama, and flying over the green trees, the streams, and the orderly plots of brown farmland below was more exhilarating than anything I could have imagined. During my first few flights, the instructor occupied the back seat. He was completely in control, and I had to comply with his every wish. Soon he had me control the movement of the plane, putting it in the various attitudes he had demonstrated. We were flying a primary trainer (PT-17), a rugged biplane with a radial engine that I could manhandle and horse around with in the air to my heart’s content.

After I had logged six hours of dual flights, I was ready for my first solo flight. On the morning of 2 September, my instructor went up with me and gave me some simulated forced landings. In case of engine failure, a pilot has to be aware at all times of his options to land. Sitting in the back seat, the instructor suddenly retarded the throttle to idle, and I had to glide the airplane to a position in the air that would enable me to land. If I let my nose get too high, or if my airspeed got dangerously low in the process, I would have failed the test, but all indications were that we would have walked away from an emergency landing.

Then I completed a few “touch -and- go” landings, putting the wheels on the ground, applying the throttle, and taking the plane back up for a “go around” in the traffic pattern. After the last landing, the instructor took his parachute, got out of the rear cockpit, and told me to take it up alone. This was what I had been waiting for. Up until this moment, he had watched my every move, but I had not received any real indication about how I was doing. Now I knew that he approved. I took it up and went over some of the maneuvers I had performed under his instruction. It was my airplane.

Tuskegee was chosen as the place for the first black military pilot training because Tuskegee Institute had already been training black civilian pilots, Tuskegee Institute lobbied for the contract to operate a primary flight school for black pilots, the region had more days of good flying weather than many other parts of the country, and the area already had a segregated environment, which was consistent with the segregated training policy of the time. 

The first black flying cadets were college-educated, but as the war went on, high school graduates without college credit were accepted into the program. To help provide some college-level training to those cadets, the 320th College Training Detachment was activated at Tuskegee Institute on 25 April 1943. After five months, graduates of that program were ready to become aviation cadets, and transferred to Tuskegee Army Air Field for pre-flight training.

The pilot cadets came from all over the country, and were considered the “cream of the crop.” Many of them had already learned to fly in the Civilian Pilot Training Program, which was available at seven historically black institutions around the country, including at Tuskegee Institute. Civilian pilot training was not a prerequisite for all the cadets, since the primary phase of flight training was designed eventually to substitute for it.

After pre-flight training, there were three phases of military flying training that most cadets had to complete before receiving their wings as Army Air Forces pilots: primary, basic, and advanced. The graduates then proceeded to transition training, to learn how to fly specific warplanes before entering combat. Those warplanes included fighters or bombers. Liaison and service pilots had fewer flight training phases.

During most of World War II, the primary, basic, and advanced flying training phases were generally nine weeks each, for a total of 27 weeks of flight training. The primary flight training phase took place at Moton Field (275 acres, 35 acres of which are now the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site). It had grass instead of paved runways. Cadets in the primary phase lived on the campus of Tuskegee Institute. Although white Army Air Forces personnel served at Moton Field, the field itself was owned by Tuskegee Institute, which operated if under a contract with the War Department. In primary flying training, the Tuskegee Airmen flew PT-17 and PT-13 biplanes, and occasionally PT-19 monoplanes, on a grass strip at Moton Field.

The basic, advanced, and original transition flying training phases took place at a much larger airfield called Tuskegee Army Air Field (1,681 acres), several miles to the northwest of Moton Field, and today in ruins in the country between Tuskegee and Tallassee. That facility was not owned by Tuskegee Institute, but by the Army Air Forces. Cadets lived on the base, which had four large paved runways and three large double hangars, but white leaders stationed at Tuskegee lived off base. Some of them resided in the white part of the town of Tuskegee, and some as far away as Auburn.

Many of the cadets started with the College Training Detachment at Tuskegee Institute, moved to Tuskegee Army Air Field for pre-flight training, then moved to Moton Field for primary flight training, before returning to Tuskegee Army Air Field for basic and advanced flight training.

In basic flying training at Tuskegee Army Air Field, the cadets flew BT- 13 airplanes, and later AT-6s. In advanced flying training, also at Tuskegee Army Air Field, future fighter pilots flew AT-6 airplanes, and future bomber pilots flew twin-engine AT-10 airplanes. Later, the AT-10 planes were replaced by TB-25s. For transition training the future fighter pilots flew P- 40s and the future bomber pilots flew B-25s.  Fighter pilots also flew P-39s and P-47s in transition training beyond Tuskegee.

There were many black and white flight instructors who trained the first black pilots in American military history. Most flight instructors in primary flight training at Moton Field were black, and at first flight instructors in basic and advanced flight training at Tuskegee Army Air Field were all white. Eventually, black flight instructors also served at Tuskegee Army Air Field, but they were never the majority of the flight instructors there. Some of the black flight instructors at Tuskegee Army Air Field arrived there late in World War II, after having fought in combat overseas.

One of the most important black flight instructors at Moton Field was Charles Alfred Anderson, whom the students called “Chief” because he had been the chief civilian pilot instructor at Kennedy Field for civilian pilot training before, and remained the chief pilot instructor at Moton Field. Chief Anderson served under Lewis A. Jackson, who headed Tuskegee Institute’s Division of Aeronautics, and George L. Washington, the General Manager of Moton Field. Washington, Jackson, and Anderson were all black, but the field also had some white military officers, who oversaw the military training, and who administered check rides to see who would graduate to Tuskegee Army Air Field for the basic and advanced flight training. Those cadets who failed to advance were said to have “washed out.” The Commandant of Cadets at Moton Field during most of World War II was Captain John G. Penn.

At the larger Tuskegee Army Air Field, the Commandant of Cadets for the first couple of years, beginning on October 27, 1941, was 2nd Lt. Robert B. Lowenberg. For most of the war years, the Director of Basic Flying Training at the same field was Major Gabe C. Hawkins, Jr.. Major Robert Long was the most important of the advanced flying training instructors at Tuskegee Army Air Field. Their commander, and the head of Tuskegee Army Air Field during most of World War II, was Colonel Noel F. Parrish. All of these officers were white, but are remembered by the Tuskegee Airmen as fair and genuinely interested in their success. Under Parrish, for example, Tuskegee Army Air Field was gradually integrated. The successful integration of base dining facilities at Tuskegee Army Air Field contrasted with segregated facilities at certain other stateside bases where Tuskegee Airmen were later stationed.

Although 13 African Americans started in the first class of flying training at Tuskegee, in 1941, only five of them graduated, in March of 1942. One of the five, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., a West Point graduate whose father was the first black general in the U.S. Army, was not actually a cadet but a student officer. Davis himself would eventually become the first black general in the U.S. Air Force. The other four graduates in the first class were 2d Lieutenants George S. “Spanky” Roberts, Lemuel R. Custis, Charles H. DeBow, and Mac Ross.

The 99th Fighter Squadron was active for about a year before it had any pilots. It had been activated in March 1941, and received its first pilots in March 1942, at Tuskegee Army Air Field. It was several months later before the squadron had enough pilots to be considered an operational flying unit. The first black commander of the 99th Pursuit Squadron, later the 99th Fighter Squadron, was 1st Lt. George S. Roberts, who took command of the squadron on 1 June 1942. The most famous commander of the unit was Col. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. When Davis succeeded Roberts as squadron commander, Roberts remained in the squadron as his second in command.

There were many black and white flight instructors who trained the first black pilots in American military history. Most flight instructors in primary flight training at Moton Field were black, and at first flight instructors in basic and advanced flight training at Tuskegee Army Air Field were all white. Eventually, black flight instructors also served at Tuskegee Army Air Field, but they were never the majority of the flight instructors there. Some of the black flight instructors at Tuskegee Army Air Field arrived there late in World War II, after having fought in combat overseas.

One of the most important black flight instructors at Moton Field was Charles Alfred Anderson, whom the students called “Chief” because he had been the chief civilian pilot instructor at Kennedy Field for civilian pilot training before, and remained the chief pilot instructor at Moton Field. Chief Anderson served under Lewis A. Jackson, who headed Tuskegee Institute’s Division of Aeronautics, and George L. Washington, the General Manager of Moton Field. Washington, Jackson, and Anderson were all black, but the field also had some white military officers, who oversaw the military training, and who administered check rides to see who would graduate to Tuskegee Army Air Field for the basic and advanced flight training. Those cadets who failed to advance were said to have “washed out.” The Commandant of Cadets at Moton Field during most of World War II was Captain John G. Penn.

At the larger Tuskegee Army Air Field, the Commandant of Cadets for the first couple of years, beginning on October 27, 1941, was 2nd Lt. Robert B. Lowenberg. For most of the war years, the Director of Basic Flying Training at the same field was Major Gabe C. Hawkins, Jr.. Major Robert Long was the most important of the advanced flying training instructors at Tuskegee Army Air Field. Their commander, and the head of Tuskegee Army Air Field during most of World War II, was Colonel Noel F. Parrish. All of these officers were white, but are remembered by the Tuskegee Airmen as fair and genuinely interested in their success. Under Parrish, for example, Tuskegee Army Air Field was gradually integrated. The successful integration of base dining facilities at Tuskegee Army Air Field contrasted with segregated facilities at certain other stateside bases where Tuskegee Airmen were later stationed.

Although 13 African Americans started in the first class of flying training at Tuskegee, in 1941, only five of them graduated, in March of 1942. One of the five, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., a West Point graduate whose father was the first black general in the U.S. Army, was not actually a cadet but a student officer. Davis himself would eventually become the first black general in the U.S. Air Force. The other four graduates in the first class were 2d Lieutenants George S. “Spanky” Roberts, Lemuel R. Custis, Charles H. DeBow, and Mac Ross.

The 99th Fighter Squadron was active for about a year before it had any pilots. It had been activated in March 1941, and received its first pilots in March 1942, at Tuskegee Army Air Field. It was several months later before the squadron had enough pilots to be considered an operational flying unit. The first black commander of the 99th Pursuit Squadron, later the 99th Fighter Squadron, was 1st Lt. George S. Roberts, who took command of the squadron on 1 June 1942. The most famous commander of the unit was Col. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. When Davis succeeded Roberts as squadron commander, Roberts remained in the squadron as his second in command.

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