GROUNDBREAKING AFRICAN-AMERICAN AVIATORS FEATURED IN
PREMIERING ON DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. DAY,
MONDAY, JANUARY 16 AT 8PM ET/PT ON SMITHSONIAN CHANNEL
From Tuskegee Airmen to NASA Astronauts to Pioneering Female Pilots, One-Hour Special Tells Story of How African-Americans
Contributed to American Aviation
New York, NY - January 9, 2012 - For early aviators, conquering the forces of gravity was a daunting challenge. But black aviators had an additional challenge - the forces of racism. Men and women of color who took to the skies and demonstrated that skin color doesn't determine skill level are the subject of the new Smithsonian Channel one-hour special, BLACK WINGS, premiering Monday, January 16 at 8 p.m. ET/PT.
BLACK WINGS celebrates the stories of black aviation with rich detail and character, proving that the dream to fly is an aspiration that transcends all boundaries. Throughout the 20th century, the evolution of aviation paralleled the evolution of American race relations. In the space where these two stories intersect are rich and rarely-told stories of courage and innovation. For these adventurers, the attraction of flight was stronger than the distraction of racism, and by taking to the skies they helped America look beyond old stereotypes. From biplanes to commercial jets, from barnstormers to war fighters, pioneering black pilots opened the skies for all.
BESSIE COLEMAN was the first internationally-licensed black pilot in America... and a woman. How did she do it? Determination, personality, and the guts to learn French and move to Paris for training, as no one in the U.S. would take her. When barnstorming was the rage in the 20s, she was on the leading edge of aviation, smashing stereotypes along the way. Helping to tell her story is LA'SHANDA HOLMES, a Coast Guard helicopter pilot who overcame a troubled childhood to become an enthusiastic ambassador for flight.
WILLIAM POWELL was a pilot and social visionary. When aviation was the cutting edge technology of the day, Powell tried every means possible to get African Americans involved in flight in order to prove they could innovate alongside whites. Dubbed "a prophet of aviation", his goal was nothing less than complete equality. Framing this story is ROBIN PETGRAVE, who runs an aviation program for minority youths in Los Angeles. Powell and Petgrave are separated by 80 years, but their visions are strikingly similar.
While the exploits of Earhart and Lindberg became iconic, THE FLYING HOBOS, pioneering black aviators, showed just as much daring but were relegated to the shadows - famous only to the black community. Two pilots tried to change that by taking off for a cross country flight with $25 in their pockets - during the depths of the Great Depression -- hoping that good luck in the air and goodwill on the ground would propel them to be the first African Americans to fly coast to coast. Modern insight comes from GUS MCLEOD, an adventure pilot who was the first to fly to the North Pole in an open cockpit biplane.
TUSKEGEE AIRMEN is the most well-known of the stories recounted in BLACK WINGS, but rarely put into context. How did the black aviators of the 20s and 30s blaze the trail for these World War II fighter pilots? And after the war, how did military culture lead the rest of society into the battle over civil rights? Air Force pilot MATT QUY offers modern perspective, revealing how he fell into Tuskegee history quite literally by accident, but ended up honoring the Airmen in a very unique way.
JESSE BROWN was the first black pilot trained by the Navy. Flying combat in the Korean War, he was shot down. Fellow pilot Thomas Hudner crash-landed his own plane to try to save the badly injured Brown from encroaching North Koreans. THOMAS HUDNER himself recounts the harrowing episode, and its bittersweet ending with President Truman at a White House ceremony. This surprising story illustrates what a white man was willing to do for a black man in 1950.
CHAPPIE JAMES trained at Tuskegee, flew combat in Korea and Vietnam, and later became America's first black 4-star general. Our focus will be Vietnam, when he was vice commander of a celebrated Air Force unit led by Col. Robin Olds. Soon, they were nicknamed "Blackman and Robin" and together they helped shape a cohesive and successful flying force amid a war known more for its chaos. Framing this story is BENJAMIN ALVIN DREW, a military helicopter pilot in the 80s and 90s who became an astronaut and flew missions on the space shuttle.
While the military was hurtling towards successful racial integration at all levels, society dragged behind. At the dawn of the jet age, the new commercial airlines were routinely hiring retired military pilots - but not black pilots. MARLON GREEN changed that. His story starts with an application form that kept his race a secret, and ends with a historic Supreme Court decision that changed the airline industry. His family members offer a very personal account of this important civil rights pioneer whose story has
never been told on film or television before.
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