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.