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L.A. Then and Now

Early Black Pilot Found Racial Equality in the Sky

November 05, 2000|Cecilia Rasmussen

Using a plane pieced together from junkyard parts, they made the 3,300-mile trip in less than 42 hours aloft. But the flight actually required 21 days because they had to raise money at each stop.

The following year, Banning was a passenger in a biplane, sitting in the front open cockpit without controls. The Navy pilot, trying to impress his more accomplished passenger, pulled the nose of the tiny plane up into a steep climb.

It stalled and fell into a fatal spin as hundreds of horrified San Diegans watched. Banning was 32 when he was buried at Evergreen Cemetery.

Powell continued to draw future black aviators with his 1934 book "Black Wings," a blueprint for what he believed to be the future: black-owned and operated commercial airlines, training schools and aircraft manufacturing firms, promising "thousands of jobs for Negros."

In 1935, he produced a documentary film, "Unemployment, the Negro and Aviation," which Powell personally showed to church youth groups and ministers, using his own experiences to goad and inspire future airmen.

Even as his health began to decline, he never gave up, offering scholarships through his newsletter, Craftsmen Aero-News, for black youths willing to learn to fly.

Powell--who died in 1942--did not live to witness the heroism of his most distinguished proteges, the Tuskegee Airmen, who shot down not only Germans, but also the reprehensible delusions of Jim Crow.

Their victories helped give substance to Powell's belief that equality in the sky would bring equality on the ground.

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