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Black History Pioneer: Perry Young

Written by on February 3, 2020

Today we honor one of black history’s greatest and most underrated, Perry Young, the first African American pilot to fly for a regularly scheduled commercial airline in the United States.

It’s August 14, 1939. The second World War has begun, Marvin Gaye had just been born a few months prior, and no one knew who Cardi B was yet. This day however, was monumental for the then 20 year old Perry Young. This was the day he earned his private pilot’s license after just three hours and 20 minutes of instruction. All while pursuing a medical degree at Oberlin College!

During his sophomore year, Young decided to pursue flying full time and left Oberlin for the Coffey School of Aeronautics in Chicago, Illinois. This was the country’s first flight school owned and operated by blacks, founded in 1938. In the midst of racial tension within the country, Coffey was one of the only flight schools that guaranteed acceptance to black students. The belief of the U.S. Army at that time was that black people were incapable of learning to fly as well as whites.

With World War II well underway, the need for more men in the army left Congress with no choice but to pass the Civilian Pilot Training Act and Public Law 18, which required civilian pilot training schools to include African Americans. This flooded flight schools with African American students, many of whom were taught by Perry Young himself. In fact, he became one of the 40 black flight instructors for none other than the famous Tuskegee Airmen! Of the 992 airmen, 150 were his students and he even trained a member of the first black aviation unit to see combat ever, George “Spanky” Roberts.

Tuskegee Airmen receiving their commissions at a parade at Tuskegee Army Airfield,  Tuskegee, Alabama, January 6, 1945. (Photo by Afro American Newspapers/Gado/Getty Images)

After his time as an instructor at the Coffee School of Aeronautics, Young searched for work in civilian aviation to no avail. Although he had nearly 7,000 hours of flight time, racial discrimination was an ever present obstacle. He found odd jobs piloting for various small time air crafts around the world until he landed a co pilot position flying Sikorsky S-58 shuttle helicopters for New York Airways. Due to the size of the new aircraft, co pilots were required for each trip forcing NYA’s hand, the same company who had previously rejected Young’s application.

On February 5, 1957, Young made history as he co piloted his first ever flight for a scheduled U.S. airline. He became the face of African American aviation. In a New York Times story that covered his groundbreaking job offer with NYA, Young stated that “…he had two goals: to open the door to other black pilots and to eventually become a pilot for a major carrier.”

Within months of his initial flight, he moved to the captains seat and for 23 years he flew an S-58 over Manhattan’s skyline, shuttling passengers from airports to a helipad atop the Pan Am building (now the MetLife building).

Sikorsky S-58 Helicopter. (Photo by Maurice Jarnoux/Paris Match via Getty Images)

Young continued to fly until FAA regulations forced him into retirement at age 67. Even well into retirement, he continued to remain in flight, often times taking rides with other pilots until his death in 1998.

Though racial barriers stood in the way of achieving his goal to fly for a major carrier, Young did accomplish his other defined goal. Through passing his knowledge to budding flight students (some even for free!) and his trailblazing nearly 50 year career, Young did way more that just open the doors for other black pilots. He kicked the door down and held it open for future generations to walk through with ease.  

So, my friends, please close your tray tables, return your seats to their normal upright position,  and raise a miniature airplane bottle for Perry Young, a true visionary who lived above the clouds. Happy Black History Month 2019!


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