US Air Force photo

African American pioneers in military aviation

February 05, 2018 - 1:53 pm

Being the first African Americans who wanted to fight for their country as pilots was a struggle.  In fact, in one instance, it wasn't allowed.  Here are two African Americans who paved the way in aviation.

Eugene Jacques Bullard

The first African American military pilot was Eugene Jacques Bullard.  He was not only the first African-American military pilot to fly in combat, he’s also the only African-American pilot in World War I. Although he never flew for the U.S., Bullard was awarded fifteen French war medals during his lifetime.

Born in 1894 in Columbus, Georgia, Bullard ran away from home when he was 11 years old.  He wandered around the Southern United States for a few years, eventually stowing away on a German freighter.  He made a living in Europe as a boxer and slapstick performer.  At the start of WWI, Bullard enlisted in the French Foreign Legion.  He was wounded at the Battle of Verdun while fighting with the 170th Infantry Regiment. 

photo credit: U.S. Air Force photo

His life as a pilot started as a $2,000 bet. While on leave, he bet a friend that despite of the color of his skin, he could enlist in the French flying service. In November 1916, he did just that, earning his wings in May 1917.  

Fun fact:  Bullard had a pet monkey.  And he flew with him everywhere.  Bullard would tuck Jimmy inside his coat on every mission.  You can see Jimmy in this picture.

photo credit: U.S. Air Force

After the U.S. entered the war, Bullard tried to join the U.S. Air Service.  At first he was turned down because he wasn’t an officer – you had to be at least a 1st lieutenant, but more than likely he was turned down due to the color of his skin. 

After the first war, Bullard bought a nightclub and stayed in France. 

Before the official start of the World War II, Bullard participated in some espionage work against the French fifth columnist, also Nazi sympathizers. Once the war started, he enlisted as a machine gunner in the 51st Infantry Regiment.

photo credit: U.S. Air Force

 

After the war, Bullard took up the civil rights cause and in 1949, was beaten by American police at a concert in New York.  After another incident when he was ordered to sit in the back of a bus, the disillusioned fighter pilot returned to France, but was never able to resume his former life there.  On Sept. 14, 1994 Bullard was posthumously commissioned as a second lieutenant in the US Air Force.

From the day Bullard earned his wings, it would take 86 years before we saw the first female African American combat pilot in the US Armed Forces. 

 

Vernice Armour

Vernice Armour earned her wings in July 2001 and became the first African American female combat pilot in 2003 when she flew with the Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 169, during the invasion of Iraq.  But by this time, being the first at something was familiar for Armour.

Photo by Staff Sgt. Jeremy Vought

In 1996, she was the first female African American on the Nashville Police Motorcycle Squad.  After graduating from the Middle Tennessee State University, she was the first African American female to serve as a Tempe, Arizona police officer. 

In 1998, she joined the Marines as an office candidate and went to flight school. In flight school, not only was she the first in her class of 12, when she graduated she was the first among the last 200 graduates. She became the first female African American pilot for the Marine Corps. And while maybe not firsts, when stationed at Camp Pendleton, Armour was the 2001 Female Athlete of the Year and won the Strongest Warrior Competition twice.

Photo by Lance Cpl. Chelsea Anderson

By this point, it should be pointed out that being a first is in Armour’s blood – her grandfather was a Montford Point Marine, the first African Americans to join the Marines. 

Armour flew the AH-1W SuperCobra attack helicopter for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and served an additional two tours in Operation Iraqi Freedom. She left the Marines in 2007 and is now a professional speaker, an author of the book 'Fly Girl,' and expert of – and this shouldn’t surprise anyone – breakthroughs in life. 

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