Why the story of the first Black pilot to fly across America in less than 42 hours matters

Stephen Nartey January 04, 2023
James Banning/Photo courtesy of the National Air and Space Museum

James Herman Banning’s dream as a little boy in Oklahoma was to be able to have the experience of being in the sky in a plane. However, as high as his aspiration was, flight schools would not admit him because he was Black.

He persevered despite the rejection until one day a former army pilot who operated a flight school in Des Moines agreed to train him, according to the University of Houston. It was at Raymond Fisher’s Flying Field in Des Moines that he cut his teeth on flying planes.

He became the first Black aviator to acquire a license from the U.S. Department of Commerce. While pursuing his passion, Banning also ran the J.H. Banning Auto Repair shop in Ames from 1922 to 1928.

Even though he was a chief pilot at Iowa, he headed to the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in Los Angeles to sharpen his flying skills. He was given the role of a demonstration pilot flying a biplane called Miss Ames during his time in the Midwest.

Banning made history in 1932 with the assistance of another Black pilot called Thomas C. Allen when Banning flew across America with the starting point being Los Angeles to Long Island in New York. They renovated the plane they used for this expedition from junkyard parts by rebuilding the engine and adding new magnetos and valves from Nash automobile. They flew a 3,300-mile trip in 41 hours and 27 minutes in the air in a span of 21 days.

Due to inadequate funds, they had to stop periodically to raise money for gas and oil. They used an orange and black Alexander Eaglerock biplane for this historic milestone. They called themselves The Flying Hoboes. Banning was inspired to fly cross-country because he believed that freedom in the sky would create freedom on the ground. He made the trip in less than 42 hours after 21 days — a remarkable time frame at the time considering the challenges he met.

Banning died in 1933 in a plane crash during an air show in San Diego. His death was a result of a navy pilot’s attempt to show off. The pilot pulled into a steep climb when the plane stalled and entered an unrecoverable spin before the eyes of hundreds of spectators. Banning, who was a passenger in the biplane, was killed as a result of that act.

He was actually billed to fly at that exhibition at Camp Kearney, California. This was postponed for several days as a result of bad weather. The navy pilot offered to fly him over from Lindbergh field to observe the number of people who were present.

Banning may have lost the fight in the air but he won his battle on the ground against racial discrimination and prejudice, historians say. He was a hero worthy of praise.

Banning was born in 1899 in Oklahoma to Riley and Cora Banning. The family relocated to Ames, Iowa, in 1919, where he studied electrical engineering at Iowa State College for more than a year.

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: January 4, 2023


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