One of the most dangerous missions for an Army Air Forces pilot during World War II was a trip flying over “The Hump” – a flight between India and China over the Himalayas. This was true for any aircraft of the era, whether it was a fighter, bomber or transport plane.
More than a thousand airmen aboard more than 600 planes went down in the Himalayas during World War II, but that’s just an estimate. So many were lost flying over the top of the world, the Army Air Forces couldn’t count them all.
If a plane did go down in the Himalayas, rescue was uncertain at best. Search and rescue missions were described at worst as “spasmodic,” and at best, “negative.” The presence of Japanese fighters only made it more dangerous
One transport-pilot was so determined not to get shot down in the Himalayas that he shoved a machine gun out his cockpit window and shot an enemy fighter down.
Gen. George C. Marshall hated the The Hump, claiming it bled the Army of its necessary transport planes and may have prolonged the war in the Pacific by nearly a year. He had every right to be skeptical.
The primary dangers associated with “Flying the Hump” didn’t even register a loss to the enemy. The air up there was just so bad and the flights so long that any pilot – even an experienced one – risked their lives just to fly it. So when an actual enemy fighter did show up, it was bad news for the Air Transport Command.
That’s what happened to Capt. Wally A. Gayda during one flight over the Himalayas. Gayda was a C-46 Commando transport plane pilot in the USAAF Air Transport Command flying from India to China. He was on his way to Chunking to drop off supplies for Chinese Nationalists fighting the Japanese.
His trip was already hazardous for the reasons mentioned above but the weather soon turned harsh, the winds picked up and his crew had trouble operating the aircraft. The Curtiss C-46 was already a whale of a plane. At the time, it was the largest transport aircraft in the world and many pilots wanted nothing to do with it.
Curtiss’ behemoth transport plane also had a snag for wartime pilots: it was unarmed. So when Capt. Gayda saw a Japanese Nakajima Ki.43 Oscar fighter out the side of his cockpit window, he needed to do something about it in a hurry. Luckily, he had a Browning Automatic Rifle handy.
The BAR in the cockpit of his C-46 was the same kind used by the Army infantry in small formations. The Browning Automatic Rifle was a compact light machine gun that could be used by just one soldier, as it was designed to be fired from the hip, while walking. That was all the pilot needed. Gayda stuck the BAR out of his cockpit window and shot the enemy pilot, downing the plane immediately.
It was the first air-to-air kill by the C-46 in World War II. The C-46 would go on to have a long and mixed career in the U.S. Air Force and elsewhere, no matter what pilots thought about it.
Featured image: A C-46 tackles its most famous challenge, the “Hump” route through the Himalayan between India and China. (National Archives)
One of the first-ever Special Forces underwater operations wasn’t targeted against an enemy. Rather, it was to assist in the search and recovery of 26 Americans who had perished in a freak aircraft collision.
On March 7, 1958, a United States Marine Corps (USMC) R4Q (C-119) “Flying Boxcar” transport and a United States Navy (USN) AD-6 Skyraider fighter were returning to Okinawa-Naha Air Force Base (AFB) after a mission in the Philippines. As they prepared for their final approach to the base, the weather suddenly turned to rain, seriously limiting visibility. The pilots, thus, decided to make an instrument landing. At that crucial moment, however, the Navy Skyraider lost its communication with both the USMC transport and with the control tower. The Marine pilots frantically tried to reach their Navy colleague on the radio, to no avail. Moments later, the Skyraider smashed into the fuselage of the R4Q, turning both aircraft into a fireball of debris and human flesh.
After the aircraft were lost from the radar, the call went out to the standby Search-and-Rescue (SAR) crews. SAR planes and helicopters from Naha AFB and other bases scrambled into action and scoured the cold Pacific Ocean for traces of the wreckage with hopes of finding survivors. After days of futilely combing the ocean, the search was called off.
In the end, the wreckage of both aircraft was discovered on the floor of the Pacific about three miles offshore. Faced with a delicate and complex recovery effort, the Marine Corps and Navy turned to the Green Berets of the 1st Special Forces Group (SFG). Dive operational detachments were then assigned to the task. In the end, after Herculean efforts, they managed to recover all 26 bodies.
In the wake of their success, the Commanding General of the IX Corps sent a letter to the 1st SFG. “In times of such tragedy and sorrow, it is most gratifying to know that local military personnel and organizations, as exemplified by the First Special Forces Group (Airborne), may be relied upon to render promptly such outstanding professional assistance,” he wrote. “I am confident that the parents, wives and loved ones of the deceased share my deep appreciation and sincere thanks for [your] outstanding contribution…to the successful accomplishment of the search and salvage operation.”
Tragically, a number of the Green Berets who participated in the recovery operations would be killed in action in Vietnam a few years later.
The year 1958 was a bad one for the C-119. In total, an astounding five aircraft were lost due to accidents, with a total loss of life of 34 service members. But the venerable Flying Boxcar continues to serve in numerous capacities in the U.S. military.
Get a group of people off the street, throw them in some cammies, make them do a ton of pushups, put TV cameras in front of them and see if they have what it takes to become Delta Team 6 Air Commandos.
Does anyone ever win those?
But the HISTORY network is trying it again, and this time they may just have gotten it right.
With a roster of no-joke pipe hitters serving as instructors, it’s as if HISTORY took BUD/S, Ranger School, Special Forces Qualification and SERE school, baked them in a cake and fed it to 30 wannabes with extreme prejudice.
That, combined with the fact that the show dubbed “The Selection: Special Operations Experiment” is backed by Peter Berg — the dude who directed “Lone Survivor” — and how can you go wrong?
“Throughout the history of our nation, Special Operations training tactics has played an integral part in our military endeavors and this series gives viewers a rare glimpse into what it takes to be selected among the elite,” said Paul Cabana, Executive Vice President and Head of Programming for HISTORY. “‘The Selection’ will offer civilians the unique opportunity to take part in an immersive, authentic course instructed by different branches leading together, while giving viewers insight into the origins of these challenges.”
With the instructors challenging them both mentally and physically, including tear gas, interrogation simulation, and psychological warfare among other tests, the participants are driven to the point of breaking and are able to remove themselves from the program at any stage. This is not a competition series – no cash rewards – only a test against oneself to see if the mind has the will and strength to push the body to complete the challenges.
“The Selection” will run for eight episodes and premieres December 8. Check out the trailer below and see full episodes on the HISTORY website.
As 80,000 U.S. and South Korean troops practice fighting a North Korean invasion during military exercises this month, the North successfully launched a submarine-based ballistic missile that regional leaders call a “grave threat to security.”
The launch of a “Pukguksong” KN-11 missile took place on August 24, with South Korean government estimates indicating the missile could be ready to deploy aboard North Korean subs as early as next year.
The KN-11’s range is unknown.
The North’s submarine was just off of Sinpo, on the east coast of the country. It flew 500 kilometers (roughly 310 miles) before falling into the Sea of Japan. The South Korean military believes it could strike twice as far.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said the test-firing proved the DPRK “joined the front rack of the military powers fully equipped with nuclear attack capability,” and “the U.S. mainland and military bases in the Asia Pacific are now within the striking range of the DPRK’s military,” according to the North’s official news service..
The missile gives North Korea a “second strike” capability, meaning the north could launch a retaliation of the U.S. and South Korea preemptively destroyed its land-based nuclear sites.
North Korean submarines are electric powered and must surface to recharge their batteries. This limits their range, preventing the subs from maneuvering undetected within launching distance of the American west coast.
We in the west have a tendency to focus on the European tensions that led to World War II. And while the rise of Mussolini and Hitler caused a massive conflict that rocked Europe and Russia, open fighting was going on in Asia for years before Germany’s encroachment into Sudetenland. And Japanese officers triggered a round of fighting in 1931 by attacking their own railroad.
Japanese troops enter Tsitsihar, a city in northeast China.
(Japanese war camerman, public domain)
The Mukden Incident took place in 1931. Japan had ambitions on the Asian continent, but the Japanese political establishment was, shall we say, less aggressive about it than the Japanese military would have preferred.
There was a railroad running through the Liaodong Peninsula near Korea. It connected key cities in the peninsula to the rest of the continent. Japan acquired the railroad and peninsula after the Russo-Japanese war of 1904-1905, giving it a much larger foothold on the continent. The railroad became one of Japan’s most economically important assets on the continent.
And, worse, China was politically unifying at the time. It created a real risk that China may become resilient to further expansion. There was even a possibility that Japan would eventually be kicked off the continent.
The site of the 1931 railway sabotage that became known as the Mukden Incident and kicked off the fighting in Asia that would become World War II.
So, in the middle of all this tension, someone blew up a short section of the railroad on Sept. 18, 1931. An under-powered bomb did little lasting damage, and the railway was operating again almost immediately.
But even more immediate was the counter-attack. In just a day, Japanese artillery was sending rounds into Chinese-held territory. In just a few months, Japan had conquered the most resource-rich areas bordering the peninsula. The limited damage, the quick Japanese retaliation, and the brutal invasion has led some historians to believe that mid-level Japanese Army officers conducted the bombing to give themselves a pretext for invasion.
Japan occupied the area for the next 14 years, and its troops continued to conquer China. It attacked Shanghai in 1932, threatening European and American interests as well as, obviously, Chinese security and sovereignty.
The American and European navies stepped up their game in the Pacific, reinforcing Pacific outposts and building new ships. Meanwhile, Japan remained on the march, continuously expanding until 1942. It would conquer vast portions of China and all of Thailand, the Philippines, Vietnam, Burma, and more.
And it all started with a shady as hell attack against its own railroad in 1931.
Disney’s “The Finest Hours” tells the story of a Coast Guard motorboat crew dispatched into an Atlantic storm after two 500-foot tankers break apart in 1952.
The crew is led by Boatswain’s Mate Bernard Webber, played by Chris Pine. Webber is second string, the junior ranking boatswain assigned to Chatham lifeboat station in Massachusetts.
The senior boatswain leads the rescue effort to the first tanker reported broken in the storm, the Fort Mercer. So when a Coast Guard plane spots the broken Pendleton, it falls to Webber and a few volunteers to attempt to rescue the 33 survivors in a small motorboat.
The movie does a good job of showing the perils of a rescue at sea in a severe winter storm. The waves crash onto a deadly sandbar with ominous booms, the boat is flipped in the waves, and the compass is ripped from the boat by a severe wave crash.
Crossing the sandbar was one of the most dangerous parts of the mission. Attempts to cross it could have easily destroyed the boat and left the crew drowning in the icy waters.
These details and others come from the factual book the movie is based on, and they’re brought to life by Craig Gillespie, the film’s director who spent his young life near the ocean.
“I grew up on the water in Australia, and I have a lot of respect for the ocean,” Gillespie told We Are The Mighty. “I sailed, I grew up surfing.
“When there’s a huge swell, you can hear it a mile and a half from the ocean, and it’s scary,” he said.
While the movie depicts the events on the boat and the Pendleton largely right, it takes more liberties with the story of Webber’s girlfriend, Miriam. During the real rescue, Miriam and Bernard were already married and Miriam was too ill to comprehend when told of Bernard’s mission.
But the movie Miriam is healthy and attempts to aid Bernard from the shore. She first argues with his commanding officer. When that doesn’t help, she seeks ways of ensuring that Bernard, if he’s successful in the rescue, will be able to make it home without a compass or any visible stars to follow.
Actress Holliday Grainger shaped her portrayal of Miriam after speaking to the Webber family and spending time at Chatham lifeboat station that the Coast Guard still operates.
She said that Miriam’s journey in the movie is about learning what it takes to be a Coast Guard wife.
“He will always be in danger,” Grainger told We Are The Mighty when discussing Miriam’s attitude toward Bernard, “and if she wants to be with him, she has to live with that, because he does it for the greater good. He can’t always put their family first. He has to put others lives first.”
“The Finest Hours” deftly weaves Bernard and Miriam’s stories, breaking up the chaos at sea with the tension on the coast.
“The Finest Hours” opens in theaters nationwide on Jan. 29.
While it might seem a little odd at first glance, it turns out the first helicopter pilot ever to receive the United States’ prestigious Medal of Honor, John Kelvin Koelsch, was born and and mostly raised in London, England. Considered an American citizen thanks to his parentage, Koelsch moved back to the US with his family in his teens, and soon after studied English at Princeton.
Described by his peers as “a man men admired and followed” Koelsch was a physically imposing individual who excelled at athletics and reportedly possessed a daunting intellect and a keen wit. Seemingly destined for intellectual greatness, Koelsch’s original plan was to become a lawyer, but he ultimately decided to join the war effort during WWII, enlisting with the U.S. Naval reserve as an aviation cadet on Sept. 14, 1942. He quickly rose through the ranks and was noted as being a terrifyingly effective torpedo bomber pilot.
Following WW2, Koelsch continued to serve with the Navy, though not before returning to Princeton to complete his degree.
At the start of the Korean War, Koelsch retrained as a helicopter pilot and ended up serving aboard, somewhat ironically, the USS Princeton.
Specializing in helicopter rescue, after what has been described as a “long tour of duty” aboard the USS Princeton, Koelsch turned down an offer to return to the United States with the rest of his squadron, simply telling his superiors that he wanted to remain until the job was done.
Two U.S. Navy Grumman F9F-2 Panthers dump fuel as they fly past the aircraft carrier USS Princeton during Korean War operations.
His request granted and with the rest of his squadron back in the United States, Koelsch was transferred to the Helicopter Utility Squadron Two, a detachment of which he was put in charge of.
Not just a great pilot, Koelsch also tinkered extensively with his own helicopter, customizing it to handle the Korean weather better, as well as perform better at extremely low altitudes so as to make spotting injured comrades easier during rescue missions.
In addition, Koelsch had a hand in inventing a number of devices to make rescuing people caught in specific circumstances via helicopter easier, such as the so-called “horse collar” hoist and a floating sling for water-based rescues.
This all brings us around to July 3, 1951. The ship Koelsch was stationed on received a distress call from a downed Marine Captain called James Wilkins. According to reports, Wilkins’ Corsair had been downed during a routine reconnaissance mission and he had been badly injured, suffering a twisted knee and severe burns over the lower half of his body.
Unsurprisingly for a man who once stated “Rescuing downed pilots is my mission” in response to a question about why he took so many risky rescue missions, Koelsch immediately volunteered to attempt to go after Wilkins. His superiors, on the other hand, noted, amongst other things, that rescuing Wilkins would be near impossible due to the heavy ground resistance expected, Wilkins being deep in enemy territory, and the rapidly approaching night and thick fog making it unlikely he’d spot Wilkins even if flying right over him.
Despite all this, Koelsch loaded up his Sikorsky HO3S-1 and set off with his co-pilot, enlisted airman George Neal to at least make the attempt.
Described diplomatically as “slow moving”, Koelsch’s helicopter was both unarmed and travelled to Wilkins’ location without a fighter escort due to the aforementioned heavy fog that day making such an escort impossible. On that note, even without enemy fire, this combination of fog, approaching night, and mountainous terrain also made flying in those conditions exceedingly dangerous.
Nevertheless, flying as low as 50 feet above the ground at some points so as to make spotting Wilkins’ downed Corsair easier through the mist, the sound and sight of Koelsch’s helicopter lazily buzzing through the air caught the attention of Wilkins (who’d been hiding in the woods from North Korean forces), prompting him to return to the parachute — his reasoning being that this would be the easiest thing for his rescuer to see.
John Kelvin Koelsch.
However, Koelsch brazen flying not far above the heads of nearby enemy forces saw them almost immediately begin firing at him as he came close to the region where Wilkins had been downed. Instead of, you know, getting out of range or doing anything whatsoever to protect his own life, when Koelsch located Wilkins, he simply hovered above him, weathering the hailstorm of bullets directed at himself and his chopper, and signaled for Wilkins to grab the hoist which had been lowered by Neal. As Wilkins would later note — “It was the greatest display of guts I ever saw.”
Unfortunately, it turns out helicopters don’t fly very well when the engine is riddled with bullet holes, and as Neal was winching Wilkins up, this is exactly what happened, causing the helicopter to crash.
Perhaps a problem for mere mortals, Koelsch was able to make something of a controlled crash into a mountainside, with himself and Neal avoiding any significant injuries, and Wilkins not suffering any further injuries as the chopper smashed into the ground.
Following the crash, Koelsch took charge of the situation and the trio fled the enemy forces, all the while taking special care to ensure Wilkins didn’t over exert himself. Koelsch and his cohorts managed to avoid capture for 9 days, eventually making their way to a small Korean fishing village. However, this is where the groups luck ran out and all three men were found hiding in a hut by North Korean forces.
During their march to a POW camp, Koelsch had the audacity to demand their captors provide Wilkins with immediate medical attention. After enough angry shouts from Koelsch, the North Korean soldiers eventually did just this; Wilkins would later credit Koelsch’s insensate and vehement pestering of their captors to give medical aid as something that ended up saving his life.
When the group reached the POW camp, Koelsch, despite being malnourished from his 9 days on the run with few supplies, shared his prisoner rations with the injured and sick, reportedly stating simply that they needed the food more than he did.
We should note at this point that Koelsch continued to do this while being periodically tortured by his captors for his refusal to cooperate in any way with them. When he wasn’t being tortured, Koelsch also continually argued with said captors about their mistreatment of his comrades, citing the Geneva Conventions. His refusal to shut up about this reportedly earned him a number of extra beatings.
Unfortunately, it all ended up being too much and Koelsch succumbed to a combination of malnutrition and dysentery, dying in October of 1951, about three months after his capture.
As for his companions, Neal and Wilkins ended up surviving the war.
In 1955, when the full extent of Koelsch’s actions and exemplary conduct while a prisoner became known, the decision was made to posthumously award him the Medal of Honor, with it noted that, beyond the selfless heroism displayed in the rescue attempt, “Koelsch steadfastly refused to aid his captors in any manner and served to inspire his fellow prisoners by his fortitude and consideration for others. His great personal valor and heroic spirit of self — sacrifice throughout sustain and enhance the finest traditions of the United States naval service.”
Koelsch’s remains were returned to the United States in 1955 by the Koreans and were interred at Arlington Cemetery, an honor reserved for all Medal of Honor awardees.
Further honors bestowed upon Koelesh include a Navy destroyer escort being named after him, as well as a flight simulator building in Hawaii.
Perhaps the most fitting honor though is that Koelsch display of stoic resilience in the face of unthinkable abuse, as well as his general conduct while a prisoner, served as one of the inspirations for the content of the 1955 Code of Conduct for American POWs which, among other things states:
If I am captured I will continue to resist by all means available. I will make every effort to escape and aid others to escape. I will accept neither parole nor special favors from the enemy. … If I become a prisoner of war, I will keep faith with my fellow prisoners. I will give no information or take part in any action which might be harmful to my comrades. If I am senior, I will take command. If not, I will obey the lawful orders of those appointed over me and will back them up in every way…. When questioned, should I become a prisoner of war, I am required to give name, rank, service number and date of birth. I will evade answering further questions to the utmost of my ability. I will make no oral or written statements disloyal to my country and its allies or harmful to their cause…. I will never forget that I am an American, fighting for freedom, responsible for my actions, and dedicated to the principles which made my country free.
This article originally appeared on Today I Found Out. Follow @TodayIFoundOut on Twitter.
An F-16 pilot flying over ISIS-held territory in 2015 suffered a malfunction of his fuel system and would have been forced to bail out if it weren’t for a KC-135 Stratotanker crew that offered to escort the jet home, the Air Force said in a press release.
The KC-135 was tasked with refueling a flight of A-10s supporting ground pounders when an F-16 came for gas and declared an emergency.
“We were in the area of responsibility and were already mated with some A-10 Thunderbolt IIs that were tasked with observing and providing close-air-support for our allies on the ground,” said Capt. Nathanial Beer, 384th Air Refueling Squadron pilot. “The lead F-16 came up first and then had a pressure disconnect after about 500 pounds of fuel. We were expecting to offload about 2,500 pounds.”
After the pilot completed his checklist, it became apparent that 80 percent of his fuel supply was trapped in the tanks and couldn’t get to the engine. The pilots would have to bail out over ISIS territory or try to make it back to allied airspace.
500 pounds of fuel is very little in an F-16, so the KC-135 flew home with the fighter and topped off its gas every 15 minutes.
“The first thought I had from reading the note from the deployed location was extreme pride for the crew in how they handled the emergency,” said Lt. Col. Eric Hallberg, 384th Air Refueling Squadron commander.
“Knowing the risks to their own safety, they put the life of the F-16 pilot first and made what could’ve been an international tragedy, a feel-good news story. I’m sure they think it was not a big deal, however, that’s because they never want the glory or fame.”
The KC-135 crew returned to their planned operation once the F-16 was safely home and were able to complete all of their scheduled missions despite the detour.
The Lockheed L-133 was thought to be capable of flying at least 620 mph and moving even faster when it kicked in its afterburners. Members of the development team thought it might even be capable of supersonic flight.
Shockingly, the L-133 wasn’t an aircraft design from the 1950s, but from 1938.
Lockheed pitched the L-133 to the Army Air Force in 1940, but the generals were focused on long-range bombers. The people at Lockheed who designed the L-133 would go on to be the major players in Lockheed’s famed Skunk Works. They took many of their ideas from the L-133 and incorporated them into new designs for more than 20 years.
When the Germans began developing jet fighters, the U.S. decided they needed one. They went to Lockheed in 1944 and asked for a new fighter within 160 days. Using the lessons from the L-133, Lockheed created the F-80 with a couple days to spare. The F-80 was the first American fighter with jet engines to reach production.
Next the F-104 Starfighter was first flown in 1954. It incorporated the afterburners and “boundary layer control,” a method of increasing control of planes with short wings, that were originally destined for the L-133.
The SR-71 Blackbird flew in 1964 and was the first American aircraft to have wings blended into the body for stealth, a design element the L-133 called for in 1940.
As exciting as the sudden appearance of thousands of hatchets at the front was, it’s not clear that they were actually used violently. The mounted infantrymen carried them into battle, but the weapons’ main contribution to the war effort seems to have been logistical.
It’s unlikely that the unit would have found much use for the hatchets in combat. Each man could fire seven shots between reloads, making it unlikely that enemy forces could march into range of the hatchets. And the men rarely rode their horses during the actual fighting. Instead, they would ride quickly to the battlefield, dismount, and send the horses to the rear.
In that way, the mounted infantrymen really were the predecessors to mechanized infantry and air assault infantry rather than cousins to the cavalry.
And if they had been cavalry, they probably would have been saddled with those common sabers instead of their awesome, namesake hatchets.
War correspondent Sebastian Junger, most famous for his documentaries “Restrepo” and “Korengal” that followed paratroopers in the Korengal Valley, has teamed up with Nick Quested to create a new documentary with National Geographic detailing the hell that is life in ISIS-controlled territory.
“Hell on Earth: The Fall of Syria and the Rise of ISIS” is cut together from over 1,000 hours of footage, most of it filmed inside the so-called caliphate.
This 13-minute teaser tells the story of families trying to escape, at first with smugglers and then on their own when their smuggler is caught by ISIS.
(Be warned that some of the images in the documentary are disturbing)
Previous reporting has shown how ISIS maintains control in its territory, how it makes its money, and how it recruits and deploys fighters.
None of it is good.
Torture and public executions are used to keep populations cowed, and money is raised through debilitating taxes, sex slavery, robbery, and other pursuits. And its fighters are recruited through international networks and then deployed at half pay or less, often as undertrained frontline fighters that amount to little more than human shields.
Some of you military types will be by the pool, some of you will be skating or shamming on duty, and at least one of you will be explaining to someone on Facebook that Labor Day isn’t about veterans or the military.
Let the best memes of the week help you stave off any labor (for at least a few more minutes) and give you some tips for celebrating the holiday.
1. Don’t forget to include your pets.
2. Remember: you can get arrested for a DUI while driving a boat.
3. Guys, be yourself when talking to the ladies.
You know it’s true because it’s the first thing he said to her.
4. Be prepared if the ladies reject your advances.
Young at the controls of an NYA Sikorsky S-55 (NASM)
Perry Henry Young Jr. was born on March 12, 1919, in Orangeburg, South Carolina. In 1929, the family moved to Oberlin, Ohio where his parents hoped that Young and his siblings would receive better education. Young graduated in the top quarter of Oberlin High School’s 1937 class. Following high school, he attended Oberlin College, the country’s oldest coeducational liberal arts college, with the intent of becoming a doctor.
However, in the summer between high school and college, Young went for a ride in an airplane and developed a love for flying. During his freshman year, Young worked part-time to fund his pursuit of a private pilot’s license. Earning $9/week, Young bought flight lessons at the airport for $5.25/20 minutes. With just three hours and 20 minutes of instruction, he made his first solo flight. On August 14, 1939, Young earned his private pilot’s license at the age of 20.
Young developed such a love of flying that he dropped out of Oberlin College to attend the Coffey School of Aeronautics in Chicago to earn his commercial pilot’s license. Founded in 1938, Coffey was America’s first flight school to be African American owned and operated. It was also one of the only schools in the country guaranteed to accept African American students. Despite earning his commercial pilot’s license, Young was unable to find work as a pilot due to racial discrimination.
With a second world war looming, Congress passed the Civil Aeronautics Act of 1938 which created the Civilian Pilot Training Program. Under the CPTP, African-Americans were required to be included in civilian pilot training, Additionally, Public Law 18 provided for an expansion of the Army Air Corps and the creation of an African-American military flying unit. However, the Army maintained the belief that blacks could not learn to fly as well as whites, and allowed African Americans to train and fly only in segregated units under the command of white officers.
Young (right) with colleagues at Tuskegee (NASM/Courtesy Linda Young-Ribeiro)
Young was able to find work as one of the 40 African American flight instructors at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute. “Very few of us knew anything about flying—few blacks did—and we thought our instructors were going to be white,” then-cadet Lee Archer recalled. “When I saw men like Perry Young, I was surprised and proud. They were like minor gods to me.” Despite his position as an instructor, Young was actually younger than most of the men that he instructed.
Young wanted more than to just teach though; he wanted to serve and fight overseas. However, instructors were too valuable to risk in combat and were barred from joining deploying units. Shakeh Young remembered of her husband, “He didn’t want to be an instructor who trained cadets. He wanted to be a cadet. He wanted to fly.” Of the 992 pilots trained at Tuskegee, Young instructed 150, including George “Spanky” Roberts who would become the first commander of the famed 99th Pursuit Squadron.
After the war, a surplus of military transport planes and a booming economy allowed many ex-military pilots to find jobs in civilian aviation. Despite his extensive experience, Young was unable to find employment as a pilot. He later told a reporter, “I had come up with a different-colored skin, and there wasn’t much I could do about it.”
(Left to right) Young’s mother, Edith, Willa Brown, one of the first female African American pilots, and Young at Chicago’s Harlem Airport, June 1941 (NASM)
Yearning to return to the skies, Young moved to the Caribbean where he and two friends set up a small airline named Port-au-Prince Flying Service. However, the airline went bust after just two years. Young remained in Haiti and found work flying for the Société Haïtienne-Américaine de Dévelopment Agricole until 1953 when he secured a position as an executive pilot for the Puerto Rico Water Resources Authority. In 1954, he was sent to Connecticut to qualify as a helicopter pilot. Afterwards, Young flew for the Puerto Rico Water Resources Authority for one more year. He would go on to work as an aircraft mechanic for Seaboard World Airlines in Canada and as a pilot for KLM in the Virgin Islands. By December 1956, he had accumulated 13,000 flight hours, 200 of which were in helicopters.
Young with the Beech Bonanza that he flew for the Puerto Rico Water Resources Authority (NASM/Courtesy Linda Young-Ribeiro)
Founded in 1949 as a mail and cargo carrier, New York Airways became the first scheduled helicopter airline to carry passengers in the United States. Young had previously applied to NYA, but was rejected because he did not meet their 500 hour helicopter flight time minimum. However, as NYA expanded their routes and upgraded their fleet of single-pilot Sikorsky S-55s to S-58s, which required copilots, the airline needed to hire more pilots. The growing company was also looking to earn some good publicity so, on December 17, 1956, they tracked Young to the Virgin Islands and hired him.
After weeks of intense training, Young made his first official flight as a copilot on February 5, 1957. With this flight, he became the first African American pilot of a regularly scheduled commercial airline in the United States. The New York Mirror was aboard the historic flight and reported:
With Perry Young as the co-pilot, the 12-passenger helicopter rose three feet from the ground, hovered gently for a moment, then, pointing its snub-nose down, soared straight up from LaGuardia Airport. In nine easy “bumpless” minutes we were at Idlewild… Perry Young is unique because he is the first Negro pilot hired by any scheduled airline in America.
Young had broken through a major color barrier in aviation. His achievement made him the face of African American aviation. He even posed for cigarette and razor advertisements in Ebony magazine.
One of the magazine advertisements featuring Young (Viceroy)
Not everyone was pleased with Young’s hiring though. Initially, two white pilots refused to take him as a copilot. NYA was too short-staffed to indulge in their prejudices, and Young was given command of an aircraft within months of his hiring. He went on to fly for NYA for 23 years until the airline filed for bankruptcy in 1979.
Young with an NYA Sikorsky S-58 (NASM/Courtesy Linda Young-Ribeiro)
At 60 years old, Young wasn’t ready to retire just yet though. He returned to the skies as the chief pilot of the Island Helicopter Corporation, flying sightseeing tours from Long Island. Young flew until he was grounded by the FAA’s mandatory age restrictions in March 1986 at the age of 67.
Young retired with his wife to Pine Bush, New York. Ever the aviator, he spent much of his time at the Orange County Airport talking with other pilots and going up for flights with them. His friends and family remember him as always doing something. He died on November 8, 1998.
Young lived for the sensation of flight. His passion for aviation took him beyond both the pull of gravity and the barriers of racial discrimination. Through his achievements, Young opened the door for other black pilots and inspired the next generation of colored aviators to follow their dreams into the skies.