Celebrating Black History Month: Pioneers of Aviation

Jonathan Kaupanger
February 05, 2018 - 1:53 pm

US Air Force photo

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Being the first person to do something isn’t always easy. Here are a couple African Americans who paved the way in aviation.

The first African American military pilot was Eugene Jacques Bullard.  Not only does Bullard own the title of 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 US, 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 leaving the country as a stowaway 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. 

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.  After the US entered the war, Bullard tried to join the US Air Service.  At first he was turned down because he wasn’t an officer – one 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 Second World War, 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.

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 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.

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!

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 and expert of – and this shouldn’t surprise anyone – breakthroughs in life.