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.