Train, fly, and fight with the Tuskegee Airmen (pictures)

In February 1941, the War Department signed a contract that set the stage for the first African-American pilots.

James Martin
James Martin is the Managing Editor of Photography at CNET. His photos capture technology's impact on society - from the widening wealth gap in San Francisco, to the European refugee crisis and Rwanda's efforts to improve health care. From the technology pioneers of Google and Facebook, photographing Apple's Steve Jobs and Tim Cook, Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Google's Sundar Pichai, to the most groundbreaking launches at Apple and NASA, his is a dream job for any documentary photography and journalist with a love for technology. Exhibited widely, syndicated and reprinted thousands of times over the years, James follows the people and places behind the technology changing our world, bringing their stories and ideas to life.
James Martin
1 of 17 US Air Force

Tuskegee Army Airfield, Alabama

During a time when segregation was the way of life, the Civil Aeronautics Authority’s secondary training program was established at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Ala., in 1940 as a way to funnel new recruits into the military in preparation for the impending World War II.

By the end of the year, the War Department had securely established the program as a stepping-stone into the Army Air Force’s basic flight course, and a few months later, in February 1941, the program was officially expanded and the Tuskegee Institute was offered a contract to train African-American pilots, making it the center for African-American aviation during World War II.

George L. Washington, director of the Tuskegee Institute Division of Aeronautics, was a key figure in bringing the primary flight training program to Tuskegee. Washington wrote in unpublished papers, which are kept in the Tuskegee University Archives, "For the Negro, it was an opportunity to further demonstrate his ability to measure arms with any other race, particularly white Americans, when given an equal opportunity. Performance in civilian aviation had certainly proven their ability to fly as individuals. And certainly this had to be the prime requisite for success in military aviation. Therefore, this was just another in the long chain of demonstrations over many years. Certainly this opportunity was far from being an experiment to the Negro.”

With the war machine ramping up, and the prospect of a draft on the horizon, African-American activists, lead by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), were lobbying for equal participation in the armed-forces effort.

Advanced instruction began at Tuskegee, turning student pilots into legitimate WWII fighter pilots and establishing a fighter group that would become legendary.
2 of 17 US Air Force

Crews of the 99th

On January 16, 1941, the War Department announced that the Air Corps would organize and train a black unit -- designated the 99th Pursuit Squadron, later renamed the 99th Fighter Squadron -- and base it at a new military airfield to be constructed near Tuskegee.

During the first half of 1941, the Air Corps began developing the training program for pilots and ground crews of the 99th and building Tuskegee Army Air Field (TAAF) in Macon County.

The Tuskegee Airmen program trained almost 1,000 pilots from 1941 to 1946. While basic flight training happened in Alabama, much of the other flight preparedness programs, including combat, ground crew, mechanical, and armorer training, occurred mostly at other locations.

The Airmen's record during World War II was astounding, having never lost a single bomber to enemy fire in more than 200 escorted combat missions, a record unmatched by any other fighter group.

Tuskegee Airmen Armorers and other ground personnel were trained at Chanute Field, Ill., as seen in this photo.
3 of 17 US Air Force

Pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group

The first class of cadets graduated to the second phase of their flight training in early November 1941, and just one month later, on December 7, 1941, the attack on Pearl Harbor flung the United States into World War II.

The War Department activated two additional segregated squadrons at Tuskegee by the end of 1942, the 301st and 302nd Fighter Squadrons. The three segregated squadrons were then organized into the newly minted 332nd Fighter Group, the first all-black group in the US Army Air Forces.

Here, pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group, Tuskegee Airmen -- the elite, African-American 332nd Fighter Group -- are seen at Ramitelli, Italy.
4 of 17 Toni Frissell

Flight gear

This photo shows the typical flight gear worn in the early 1940s by the Tuskegee Airmen fighter pilots. The man on the right is wearing A-9 pants along with a D helmet and pair of AN 6530 Army Air Corps Goggles from WW II. The man on the left wears the A-11 Leather Flight Helmet with B-8 goggles.

Both men wear B-10 flight jackets with A-14 oxygen masks with internal microphones installed and have the A-11 winter flying gloves with a white label on the cuff of the removable wool knit liner.
F-86 Sabres in Korea
5 of 17 US Air Force

F-86 Sabres in Korea

Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr., a Tuskegee Airman, was one of the first African-American wing commanders, leading the 51st Fighter Interceptor Wing, and seen here leading a formation of F-86F Sabres at around the time of the Korean War.
Lee Archer: Tuskegee Airman
6 of 17 US Air Force

Lee Archer: Tuskegee Airman

Lt. Col. Lee Archer, seen here, and the Tuskegee Airmen were the subjects of the George Lucas produced film "Red Tails."
7 of 17 National Museum of the US Air Force

Studying aircraft engines

Aviation cadets study a radial aircraft engine during one of their ground school courses in June 1942.
8 of 17 US Air Force

Ground support

As is often the case, the men who supported the fliers can be overlooked. The Tuskegee Airmen were supported by their own ground crew, as a segregated African-American unit. Here, mechanics of 99th FS Tuskegee Airmen, 332nd Fighter Group-15th USAAF repair a P-40 engine.
Tuskegee cadets
9 of 17 US Air Force

Tuskegee cadets

Maj. James A. Ellison salutes Mac Ross of Dayton, Ohio, as he passes down the line during review of the first class of Tuskegee cadets in Tuskegee, Ala., in 1941. On the left in the distance is a Vultee BT-13 Valiant trainer aircraft.
10 of 17 US Air Force

Distinctive 'red tails'

The Tuskegee Airmen's planes featured a distinctive "red tail" marking.
11 of 17 National Archives

.50 caliber guns on a P-51 Mustang

An armorer of the 15th U.S. Air Force checks ammunition belts of the .50 caliber machine guns in the wings of a P-51 Mustang fighter plane before it leaves an Italian base for a mission against German military targets. The 15th Air Force was organized for long-range assault missions and its fighters and bombers ranged over enemy targets in occupied and satellite nations as well as Germany itself.
12 of 17 US Air Force

Temporary runway, 332nd Fighter Group

Standing on a temporary runway, 332nd Fighter Group pilots discuss combat flying, with the P-51 Mustangs in the background.
13 of 17 Toni Frissell/LOC.gov

Ramitelli, Italy, March 1945

Edward C. Gleed, left, is seen with two unidentified Tuskegee Airmen in Ramitelli, Italy, during March 1945.
14 of 17 Toni Frissell/LOC.gov

Italy, March 1945

Tuskegee Airmen in Italy.
15 of 17 Toni Frissell/LOC.gov

100th Fighter Squadron

Crew Chief Marcellus G. Smith of Louisville, Ky., 100th Fighter Squadron, is seen working on an airplane in Ramitelli, Italy, during March of 1945.
16 of 17 National Park Service

Refueling a P-40

Tuskegee Airmen refuel one of the P-40 fighter planes.
17 of 17 Toni Frissell

P-51 spare fuel tank

Tuskegee Airman Capt. Ed Gleed is seen here next to a spare fuel tank alongside his P-51 fighter plane. He's holding an A-14 respirator mask and wearing the RAF 1941 life preserver.

More Galleries

17 Hidden iOS 17 Features and Settings on Your iPhone
Invitation for the Apple September iPhone 15 event

17 Hidden iOS 17 Features and Settings on Your iPhone

18 Photos
AI or Not AI: Can You Spot the Real Photos?

AI or Not AI: Can You Spot the Real Photos?

17 Photos
I Took 600+ Photos With the iPhone 15 Pro and Pro Max. Look at My Favorites

I Took 600+ Photos With the iPhone 15 Pro and Pro Max. Look at My Favorites

34 Photos
Go Inside the Apple iPhone 15 and iPhone 15 Pro: See How the New iPhones Look and Work
iphone 15 in different color from an angled view

Go Inside the Apple iPhone 15 and iPhone 15 Pro: See How the New iPhones Look and Work

21 Photos
Yamaha motorcycle and instrument designers trade jobs (pictures)

Yamaha motorcycle and instrument designers trade jobs (pictures)

16 Photos
CNET's 'Day of the Dead Devices' altar (pictures)

CNET's 'Day of the Dead Devices' altar (pictures)

9 Photos
2007 Los Angeles Auto Show: concept cars

2007 Los Angeles Auto Show: concept cars

14 Photos