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The Sky's the Limit : One of Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines Was 'The Brown Condor,' a Pioneer Black Aviator Who Pushed the Envelope for Today's Pilots

August 07, 1988|JULES LOH | Associated Press

NEW YORK — Tom Simmons' love of flight is fundamental. He learned to fly at 16, owns a biplane and takes part in air shows.

"Most people who love the sky can't be as happy on the ground as other people," he said, as if stating an obvious truth.

But even he did not suspect that simple curiosity about a fellow pilot long dead would turn into an obsession. It was to consume his life for 10 years, until he could search out and write every detail about a remarkable American named John Charles Robinson.

"The man became important to me," Simmons said.

"He was from my hometown, Gulfport, from my Mississippi, from my South, and he belongs to the United States as a true hero. I wanted everyone to know about him.

"I once told someone that when I finally finished the book and had gotten it published, maybe his spirit would leave me alone."

Simmons' book, "The Brown Condor: The True Adventures of John C. Robinson," was published recently by Bartleby Press. Whether John Robinson's spirit now lets him go remains to be seen. Simmons still does not seem to tire of talking about Robinson or about how he managed to find all that rich detail about his extraordinary life.

It turns out that John Robinson, although he was black, became an accomplished aviation instructor in the 1920s and trained a small cadre of pilots for Ethiopia when Italy invaded that country before World War II. He became Emperor Haile Selassie's personal pilot and consultant and later helped establish an Ethiopian airline.

It was a small item in the 75th anniversary edition of the Biloxi, Miss., Sun-Herald that set Tom Simmons on his 10-year quest.

It was a quotation from a 1930s travel book, "A Walking Tour of Gulfport":

"If you cross the Gulf and Ship Island Railroad you will come to the Big Quarter and at 30th Avenue see the home of the pilot Johnny Robinson, the Brown Condor of Ethiopia."

Simmons was born in Gulfport and knew its history, knew that the Big Quarter was the old black section of West Gulfport. He also knew his aviation history.

"I said to myself, are they trying to tell me a black man from Gulfport could get a pilot's license back in those days? Impossible! Aviation was one area where blacks were thoroughly excluded. That was just a fact.

"If it were true, I figured I might have a little article for one of the flying magazines I contributed to," Simmons remembered.

He knew an elderly black woman, Miomi Godine, who was also a Gulfport native. He asked her if she had heard of John Robinson.

"She said: 'Why, yes, I knew him. He used to walk me to Sunday school.' She also told me that, yes, he had been a pilot, had died as a result of an accident on a rescue mission in Ethiopia in 1954, and that his sister lived in New York City--Mrs. Bertha Stokes."

Godine's memory was clear and her recollections stirred Simmons' curiosity all the more. It was worth a trip to New York to confirm the improbability of the story he was hearing.

After he visited Bertha Stokes, his curiosity turned to obsession.

Back in Mississippi, Simmons installed himself in the Sun-Herald library and read every page of every newspaper from most of 1934 through 1936. The research produced a few clues.

He found old clippings at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama where Robinson had learned automotive mechanics in 1924.

He found Robinson's footprints in Chicago, where he had landed a job sweeping out classrooms at a Curtis-Wright flying school while classes were in progress and where Robinson and another black mechanic, Cornelius Coffey, had built their own airplane using a motorcycle engine.

Then he found Cornelius Coffey.

He found a photo of Robinson at the Air and Space Museum in Washington, but nothing more was known about him there. On that trip, though, Simmons met Curtis Graves.

"Curtis worked for NASA. He grew up in Mississippi and, being black, he was able to interview people who might have been leery about my motives. Pretty soon, Curtis was caught up in the project as much as I was."

The search for John Robinson apparently had that effect on everyone snagged in Simmons' net.

"Every time I thought, well, this is all I'm going to get," he said, "another door would open. . . ."

While announcing an air show in Meridian, Miss., Simmons turned to the honored guest, pioneer aviator Al Key, and said: "By the way, Al, did you ever hear of a John Robinson back in the old days?"

Key turned out to be a wellspring of anecdotes about Robinson. So it went.

"It was easy to become fascinated by Robinson, especially for a Southerner, especially for black Southerners. They knew how the system worked back then and what it took to lick it, as Robinson had.

"It was purely because of Robinson's accomplishments that Tuskegee was included in the Army's program to train pilots for World War II--black pilots. He knocked down that barrier.

Identified With Struggle

"I suppose I grew to love the man, in the sense that even though I'm white, I could identify with some of the struggles he went through. I understood his having to go to another continent to get his opportunity to excel."

Not long ago, Fred Gregory, a space shuttle pilot who is black, visited Mississippi. Simmons met him and gave him a ride in a biplane, a new experience for the astronaut.

"The trail in aviation leads from John Robinson to Fred Gregory. John Robinson was the spark.

"I guess I got caught up in that notion and couldn't let it go."

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