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Early African American Aviators

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James Herman Banning

James Herman Banning, seated in his biplane, circa 1929. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution.


James Herman Banning was born in El Reno, Oklahoma on 5 November 1900. Banning was a soft-spoken child with an interest in both reading and mathematics, and he enjoyed tinkering with farm machinery, even at an early age.

In the fall of 1916, he traveled east to attend Faver High School in Guthrie, Oklahoma. There he continued to study mathematics, and developed his ability to repair automobiles and farm equipment. Banning graduated from high school in the spring of 1918, and his good grades suggested that he might be ready for college. However, he did not go directly to college once he graduated high school, as he spent the next year working on the farm and doing odd jobs as a mechanic in order to save money.

By the spring of 1919, he had saved nearly $1,000 and was ready to head to college. He considered nearby Langston College, as well as the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, both of which had good engineering programs. He also applied to Iowa State College in Ames, Iowa, similarly known for its engineering program. (At the time, Iowa was a fertile ground for aviation activities. As early as 1845, a hot-air balloon was sent up without passengers at Burlington, Iowa, and beginning in 1910, barnstormers flew aircraft at county fairgrounds and other suitable fields around the state.)

Banning was pleased to learn that Iowa State had accepted his application. Following his father's advice and encouragement, he decided to attend the college. Riley and Cora Banning rented their homestead to another family and moved with their son to Ames, Iowa. Ames was a pleasant town with an open attitude toward African Americans, and with relatively little difficulty, the Bannings found a home on West Second Street. Banning began his freshman year as one of only a handful of black students.

Banning continued to work as a mechanic while attending school. He set up shop in his parents' garage, and his skills became well known in the Ames area. In the meantime, Riley Banning purchased a 1915 Iver-Johnson motorcycle for his son. Young Banning soon became a regular sight riding around Ames on his motorcycle.

In the spring of 1920, Banning took his first airplane ride. The opportunity arose when Stanley M. Doyle, a former World War I combat pilot, came to Ames to fly in an air circus. After paying five dollars, Banning hopped into Doyle's Canuck airplane, and the two men took off for the blue skies. The 45-minute flight over the Iowa countryside was a thrill for Banning.

After leaving college and deciding to focus on automobile and motorcycle repair for several years, Banning's interests turned to airplanes and flight school. At the end of 1924, after spending considerable time to locate a flight school that would accept him as a student, Banning persuaded World War I veteran Lieutenant Raymond C. Fisher to teach him to fly. That winter, in between blizzards, Banning would travel the snowy roads from Ames to Des Moines to train in an old Hummingbird airplane. In 1926, Banning became the first African American pilot to earn a pilot's license–a limited commercial license, number 1324. (It was not until 1926 that the United States began licensing pilots. Until 1926, a pilot in the United States either flew without a license or earned a certificate from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI).)

Banning then became a fixture at air shows around Iowa, flying either an OX-5 Jenny or a white Hummingbird he dubbed Miss Ames. In one instance at the May 1929 re-dedication of the Gerbracht Airport, Banning tried to join the activities in his white Hummingbird, but it would not fly properly. Another auto mechanic and pilot, Marion Wearth, went to Wichita to pick up a substitute American Eagle biplane for Banning. However, at the close of the program, Banning insisted he had Wearth's permission to fly the American Eagle Wearth already had at Ames, and pushed it out of the hangar. Banning began stunting for the 8,000 spectators, but the biplane started spinning at 1,000 feet and Banning managed to level the plane slightly before it crashed in a cornfield. He suffered a broken leg, broken ribs, severe cuts, and bruises. The plane's landing gear and wings were heavily damaged, but Wearth was reportedly more concerned about Banning's health than his airplane after this crash.

Later in 1929, once Banning had recovered from his injuries, William J. Powell recruited him to become the chief pilot for the newly formed Bessie Coleman Aero Club in Los Angeles, which had as its mission the training of African American pilots. As Emory Malick had ceased flying in 1928, Banning had become the most experienced black pilot in the country and was a seasoned barnstormer with more than 750 hours of flying to his credit. This experience qualified him to not only carry passengers but also to fly mail and other cargo. Banning served as the chief instructor for the Bessie Coleman Aero Club, which held classes at Jefferson High School and maintained a small storefront office at 1423 Jefferson Boulevard in the growing city of Los Angeles.

During this time several black pilots had attempted to raise money for a transcontinental flight. Hubert Julian was the first black pilot to attempt to raise funds for a cross-country trip, but when Julian's plans to purchase a sleek Lockheed fell through, Banning put up $450 for a secondhand Alexander Eagle Rock, a World War I-era biplane with a 14-year old engine. Banning then enlisted a top-notch mechanic, Thomas C. Allen, to fly with him.

Even though by 1932 Banning had flown nearly 1,500 hours, he had difficulty securing financial support for his cross country flight. Long distance flights during the 1930s were usually funded by big companies, and few businesses were willing to support black pilots. With limited support from local numbers runner Ed "Small Black" Dennis, Banning and Allen were able to muster just enough cash to push off on 19 September 1932. They dubbed themselves "The Flying Hoboes" and plotted their route to take them to towns with black populations so they could solicit funds from churches, pool halls, and other such gathering places.

After a series of planned and forced landings, repairs, and near misses, these adventurers eventually reached Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. There they met Robert H. Vann at the YMCA where they were staying before completing the last leg of the flight to Long Island, New York. Vann was working with the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Democratic presidential campaign in FDR's first run for the White House. Once Vann heard Banning and Allen's story, he came up with an idea. If Banning and Allen would litter the countryside between Pittsburgh and Long Island with 15,000 Roosevelt-Garner campaign flyers, the Democratic Party would assist the pilots with money to fly back to Los Angeles. In a 1982 interview, Thomas Allen stated that they happily carried out the stunt. In the process, they became the first black pilots to campaign for a presidential candidate from the air.

With this last bit of help, Banning and Allen flew into Valley Stream Airfield on Long Island, New York on 9 October 1932, three weeks after their departure from Los Angeles. Their actual time in the air had been less than 42 hours.

Banning and Allen made history. They took off from Los Angeles on 19 September 1932 as hoboes and landed in Long Island, New York on 9 October 1932 as heroes. The black press and mainstream press followed their exploits, including front page coverage in the black-owned Amsterdam News. They were given the keys to New York City, wined and dined at Harlem's Cotton Club, and mobbed on the streets of Harlem.

The pair eventually returned to Los Angeles, where Banning continued to organize and participate in air shows. In February 1933 Banning was a passenger in an airplane flying from Tech Field at Fort Kearney, San Diego. The pilot, a white machinist's mate, began experiencing difficulty with the aircraft, but Banning, sitting in the passenger's seat with no control stick, was unable to reach the controls, and the aircraft plummeted to earth. Tragically, James Herman Banning, a skilled pilot who had devoted his life to aviation and helped other blacks obtain flying licenses, was killed.

Banning was just 32 years old, and great sorrow swept through the nation's black communities at the news of his untimely death. His adventurous spirit, however, would long be remembered.

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