Charles A. Anderson

Charles “Chief” Anderson Charles Alfred “Chief” Anderson Sr. (1907-1996) is best known as the lead flight instructor of the civilian pilot training program at Tuskegee Institute‘s Kennedy Field in Tuskegee, Macon County. In addition, he headed up the team of African American instructors for cadets in the primary phase of military pilot training at Moton Field, a school operated by Tuskegee under contract with the Army Air Forces. He is called the “Father of Black Aviation” for helping to break the color barrier for blacks seeking to become pilots, such as the Tuskegee Airmen.

Anderson was born on February 9, 1907, to Iverson and Janie Anderson in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. An only child, he grew up in that area, but also lived for a time with his grandmother in Staunton, Virginia. In August 1929, Anderson borrowed money to buy his own airplane, a Velie Monocoupe, and with it largely taught himself how to fly, as few flying schools would accept black students. Anderson also learned flying while accompanying Russell Thaw, an experienced pilot to whom Anderson lent his airplane for trips to Atlantic City, New Jersey. According to his family, Anderson joined the Pennsylvania National Guard but was let go when its leaders discovered he was black. For a time, he also attended the Pets Aviation School in Philadelphia but was dropped for the same reason.

Charles Anderson Stamp Unveiling By the end of 1929, Anderson had learned enough about flying to become one of the first black pilots to earn a private pilot’s license. Anderson then trained with Ernst Buehl, a German veteran of World War I and later transcontinental airmail pilot in the United States. In 1932, with Buehl’s help, he became the first African American to earn a commercial transport pilot license, enabling him to fly passengers. While in Atlantic City, Anderson met Albert E. Forsythe, a black surgeon who became his patron, providing funding for an aircraft they later flew together. Given the racial climate at the time, even in Pennsylvania, Anderson did not have many white customers. In July 1933, Anderson and Forsythe flew from Atlantic City to Los Angeles, California, and back, thus completing the first transcontinental roundtrip flight by black pilots. In 1934, after purchasing a larger airplane that he named for Booker T. Washington, Anderson embarked with Forsythe on a goodwill flight to the West Indies, stopping in the Bahamas, Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Granada, and Trinidad; they received much publicity in the black press for the trip. At the time, white pilots were also flying goodwill flights between the United States and Latin America. Also in 1934, Anderson married Gertrude Nelson, with whom he would have two children.

After Forsythe returned to his medical practice, Anderson accepted a job as flight instructor at Howard University in Washington, D.C., which was participating in the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) that commenced in 1939 to prepare a reserve force of pilots as war in Europe loomed. Tuskegee Institute, which also joined the program that year, persuaded Anderson to become its chief flight instructor at its new airfield, Kennedy Field, or Airport Number 1, in 1940. While teaching civilian pilots there, Anderson received the nickname “Chief.”

Eleanor Roosevelt and Charles Anderson In early March 1941, the Air Corps activated the world’s first black flying unit, the 99th Pursuit Squadron, at Chanute Field, Illinois, but announced that its pilots would train at Tuskegee. At the end of the month, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt, visited Kennedy Field while meeting with the Rosenwald Foundation board and asked Anderson to take her on a flight. She wrote about her experience in a widely published column, and a photograph of Anderson with Roosevelt in a Piper Cub aircraft became famous. This event helped dispel the myth that blacks could not or did not fly airplanes and encouraged African Americans to pursue aviation as a career.

Charles Anderson and Cadets In 1941, the Army Air Corps contracted with Tuskegee Institute to operate a primary flight school, for which the institute constructed a larger airfield, called Moton Field, several miles north of Kennedy Field. Anderson moved to Moton Field and became the chief civilian flight instructor there. The pilots who made up the first class at Moton Field, including Benjamin O. Davis Jr., were trained by white Air Corps flight instructors, but Anderson led the black civilian flight instructors at Moton Field who instructed all subsequent classes. Many members of the 99th Fighter Squadron, the first black flying unit in combat, remembered him long after they moved on to basic and advanced flight training at Tuskegee Army Air Field and sent him letters from combat deployments in North Africa and Italy after the United States entered World War II.

Remaining in Tuskegee after the war, Anderson continued to provide flight instruction at Moton Field, which remains an active airport and is the location of the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site. In 1967, Anderson co-founded Negro Aviation International, an association for black pilots. He died in 1996 at the age of 89 in Tuskegee and was buried at Greenwood Cemetery there. Anderson was inducted into the Alabama Aviation Hall of Fame in 1991 and was the recipient of numerous awards and honors for promoting blacks in aviation. On April 16, 2014, the United State Post Office unveiled a stamp commemorating Anderson at a ceremony at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site in Tuskegee. Among others in attendance was Anderson’s son, Charles Anderson, and actor Keith David, who narrates the National Park Service’s film The Tuskegee Airmen: Sacrifice and Triumph, which is shown in the newly renovated park’s theater on frequent rotation.

Further Reading

  • Caver, Joseph, Jerome Ennels, and Daniel Haulman. The Tuskegee Airmen: An Illustrated History, 1939-1949. Montgomery, Ala.: NewSouth Books, 2011.
  • Holway, John. Red Tails, Black Wings: The Men of America’s Black Air Force. Las Cruces, N.M.: Yucca Tree Press, 1997.
  • Jakeman, Robert J. The Divided Skies: Establishing Segregated Flight Training at Tuskegee, Alabama, 1934-1942. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1992.
  • Moye, J. Todd. Freedom Flyers: The Tuskegee Airmen of World War II. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

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