Today in African-American Transportation History – 1933: The Death of an American Aviation Hero

This post and others throughout African-American History Month will highlight notable African-Americans in transportation.

African-American aviation pioneer James Herman Banning died during an air show at the U.S. Navy base in San Diego County, California. He was only 32. “The heroic young flyer was killed when a Travelair two-seater plane, in which he was a passenger, went into a tailspin after climbing 400 feet from the takeoff and crashed at Camp [Kearny],” reported the Pittsburgh Courier. “And irony mingled with tragedy as the news flashed to every part of the country that Banning had made the ‘sacrifice supreme.’”

Despite his relatively short lifespan, Banning had managed to achieve a great deal. He was born in Canton, Oklahoma, in 1900, and at an early age demonstrated a strong aptitude for just about anything mechanical. He continued to develop this aptitude as a high school student; by his senior year, he had become an accomplished automobile mechanic.

Banning eventually acquired an interest in aviation as well. He read everything on the subject that managed to find, attended air shows as often as he could, and flew in planes as a passenger whenever possible. By the mid-1920s, his enthusiasm for planes had easily overtaken his interest in automobiles. Banning sought to learn how to fly, but he was initially rejected by at least four aviation schools due to racial discrimination.

Finally, a flight instructor and World War I veteran pilot name Raymond C. Fisher agreed to take Banning on as a student. Fisher taught Banning how to fly in a Hummingbird biplane. These flight lessons opened a whole new world for Banning. “My head erect, eyes to the front, shoulders squared, I was a different man,” he noted about the first time he took the skies on his own. “A full-fledged pilot.” In 1926, Banning became the first African-American to receive his pilot’s license under formal aviation requirements that had just been implemented by the U.S. Department of Commerce.

Over the next three years, Banning established himself as an experienced barnstormer with a once-wrecked biplane that he rebuilt himself and named “Miss Ames.” He performed in air shows far and wide while logging more than 250 hours of flying time. Banning ended up moving to California, where he became the chief pilot of the Bessie Coleman Aero Club and trained other African-Americans how to fly.

Banning took on his most formidable challenge yet in 1932 when he decided he would fly from coast to coast. For this transcontinental journey of 3,300 miles between California and New York, he joined forces with African-American mechanic and novice pilot Thomas Allen to form a team called the Flying Hoboes. They adopted that name since their basic plan was to travel across the county, stop at places along the way where they would be welcome, and hopefully acquire enough money to ultimately get them to their destination.

Banning and Allen departed Los Angeles in an Eaglerock plane on September 18, 1932. News about their ambitious cross-country trek increasingly spread throughout the United States, and they soon had few if any problems with offers of food, money, and other types of assistance. When Banning and Allen made a forced landing in the vicinity of St. Louis due to engine trouble, for example, trade school students from that city helped them make the necessary repairs. On October 9, 1932, Banning and Allen landed at Curtiss Airport on Long Island. They made history as the first African-Americans to complete a transcontinental flight.

“It took plenty of nerve or better, as football coaches say, plenty of guts,” wrote journalist Frank A. Young in an article about the flight appearing in the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper. “They flew without the latest instruments and at times without being able to see the tips of their wings. Young added, “They might have had some luck, it is true, but they also had plenty of pluck.” Banning’s untimely death took place less than four months later.

For more information on James Herman Banning, please check out

Image of James Banning used By Source, Fair use,

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