On a hazy afternoon in September 1932, two men in goggles and flight suits climbed into the open cockpits of a World War I-era biplane at Dycer Airport in Los Angeles. With its deafening engine pulling them along, they sped down a runway and rose into the sky.
Their goal was to reach Curtiss Field in Valley Stream, Long Island. And beyond that -- to make a place in history as the first black pilots ever to cross America by air.
Taking off with only $25 between them in the depths of the Great Depression, aviators James Herman Banning and Thomas C. Allen called themselves "the flying hoboes." During their 22-day, 3,300-mile adventure, they would raise money for food and fuel by selling personal items, speaking at church meetings and even distributing campaign literature for presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt. They would endure the heat of the desert and the chill of the Rockies. Their old Alexander Eagle Rock biplane -- bought for $450 just before the trip -- and its 14-year-old engine would suffer breakdowns and even a very rough landing before reaching Long Island.
Banning and Allen -- among aviation buffs their names are forever linked -- were members of the Bessie Coleman Aero Club, a small group of aviators in Los Angeles named after the world's first licensed black pilot. Although details were vague, a rumor circulated among members of the club that a $1,000 prize had been offered to the first black pilots to fly across the United States.
Banning was ready to try. At age 31, with 750 hours flight time, he was the nation's most experienced black aviator and chief pilot of the Bessie Coleman club, which staged air shows and gave blacks a chance to earn their wings.
Banning knew that transcontinental flights were nothing new in 1932. Two decades earlier, over the course of 49 days in 1911, Calbraith Rodgers flew a rickety biplane from Brooklyn to California in a trip sponsored by the Vin-Fiz soda company. And in 1923, Army pilots John Macready and Oakley Kelly flew a passenger plane from Roosevelt Field to San Diego in nearly 27 hours, the first nonstop coast-to-coast flight.
But the pioneering fliers who crossed continents or oceans in that era were white, and most had private, corporate or government support. Black Americans, meanwhile, struggled to get airborne. Although Bessie Coleman obtained a license in 1921, she had to get it in France after being rejected in the United States because of her race and gender. In his 20s, Banning was kept out of U.S. flying schools because of his skin color. But he persisted and, while working as an auto mechanic in Iowa, found a World War I air veteran to teach him. In 1926, Banning became the first black pilot licensed by the U.S. government.
Banning honed his skills in the next five years by restoring a wrecked biplane and barnstorming around the Midwest. By 1932, many in the black flying community thought he might be the one to shatter myths that blacks couldn't fly by making that cross-country flight, according to Philip S. Hart, Banning's great-nephew and a retired professor of sociology at the University of Massachusetts.
Dreaming of the $1,000 prize, and hoping to make a statement for black Americans, Banning looked for a flying partner. "There was a kind of pecking order of pilots who wanted to be on the plane with Banning," Hart says.
Banning recruited the 25-year-old Allen, who was already a top airplane mechanic and had flying experience. He learned to fly at age 17, doing odd jobs at an airport in Oklahoma to earn time with an instructor.
The two aviators plotted their course across the Southwest, the Midwest, and finally Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Because of their color and their meager funds, they sought out towns with black populations so they could easily find places to sleep and eat.
"When we came down, one of us would work on the plane and the other would go into town to a black pool hall or church and try to get donations to make the next leg of the flight," Allen told the Daily Oklahoman newspaper in Oklahoma City a few months before he died in 1989.
The Chicago Defender, a black newspaper, reported in 1932 that the pair "had to depend on their ability to win and convince hostile whites with their sincerity and their personal worth in order to get the necessities of life, and for their plane's fuel."
Hart, who has written about the pilots in two books for young people and produced a 1987 documentary on black aviators for PBS, says racial hostility was not frequent during the flight.
"I'm not saying it didn't happen, but it was not the prevailing theme of their trip," Hart says. Aside from surprising a few farmers who might suddenly find "a couple black guys and their biplane" in a field, Hart says, the pair found "pretty good support" along the way.
But there were difficult moments. In New Mexico, Allen had to sell his watch and a spare suit for fuel. Over West Texas, they passed the imposing El Capitan peak and encountered clouds. Thin air kept them from ascending. Banning took readers aloft in a Pittsburgh Courier article after the flight:
"We are engulfed, flying blind. We can't see our own wing tips. Nothing to show our position. Steady on the stick and rudder. Hold it neutral. A stall or spin here would be fatal! We are fools to fly through this without proper equipment. Plenty of nerve -- no sense ... " They descended and found better visibility despite fog and rain.
In Oklahoma, the boyhood home of both men, they desperately needed money and spoke at church meetings. They raised $11. In Tulsa, they approached oilman William Skelly, an aviation buff who agreed to fund them as far as St. Louis.
Help from strangers
The aviators -- Allen in the front cockpit, Banning in the pilot's seat behind him, and occasionally the other way around -- joked that although their engine was rated at 100 horsepower, "some of the horses are dead." In St. Louis, their trip was saved when white students at a trade school replaced the biplane's worn-out engine valves with auto parts.
At each stop, they inscribed the names of their benefactors on the Eagle Rock's left wingtip, calling it their "gold book. "
After they left Columbus, Ohio, their engine began vibrating over hilly terrain. They had to make an emergency landing.
"Trees, bushes, stumps! Side slip, boy, side slip!" Banning wrote later, describing a landing maneuver. "You are going to hit that fence -- wham -- bang -- slam! And we are down safely in an almost impossible place. Not a scratch on the ship ... Proves that you don't die every time your motor does. Sure we are going to sleep under the wings tonight. Won't be the first time."
Locals helped them find engine parts and a farmer lent them a lamp and invited them for breakfast.
In Pittsburgh, Robert Vann, publisher of the Courier, a leading black newspaper, arranged for the Democratic Party to fund the rest of their trip as well as their return to California. In return, Banning and Allen agreed to drop 15,000 leaflets urging voters to support Roosevelt for president that November.
"We were more than happy to throw them out of the plane to save weight," Allen once recalled.
Hello, Long Island
Finally, on a sunny Sunday, Oct. 9, they took off from Trenton on the last leg of their trip. "I feel like looping the loop," Banning wrote, recounting the day. "Old Sol seems to be smiling on our success, and here is Valley Stream Airport, and to me that sight is the biggest thrill of our trip-our goal."
Valley Stream's airport was opened on farmland only three years earlier by aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss. It had become one of the largest commercial airports on Long Island but would close in 1933, a victim of the Depression. (Years later, it became the site of the Green Acres Mall.)
How Banning and Allen were greeted on Long Island on the 22nd day of their journey -- they had actually spent only 41 hours, 37 minutes in the air -- is unclear. The local white press ignored or was unaware of the story. The Nassau Daily Review, Floral Park Record, Valley Stream Mail, Hempstead Sentinel and Brooklyn Eagle carried no reports of their arrival. But Hart says family legend is that a few local dignitaries and a crowd, mostly African-Americans who read about the flight in the black press, greeted the pair at Valley Stream.
In New York City, the aviators won a rousing welcome. Hart says Mayor Jimmy Walker gave them the key to the city, and they were celebrated at nightclubs in Harlem by Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington.
Banning was understated in describing the exploit.
"We left Los Angeles without any publicity, and we arrived in New York minus the ballyhoo," he told the Chicago Defender. "We did not name our plane or state our intentions. Not that we are superstitious, but too often individuals tend to make announcements and then fall down. We preferred to do the stunt and then let others herald it."
The black press was jubilant.
"Their achievement is one of persistence, courage and a notable example to the Race youth in America," the Chicago Defender said. The Pittsburgh Courier proudly called them "suntanned editions of the 'Lindy' of yesteryear." New York's Amsterdam News put their photo on Page 1.
Von Hardesty, a curator at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., says Banning and Allen's flight was important because of the odds the men faced in the 1930s. "America is in the Depression and the era of Jim Crow," Hardesty says. "Blacks are barred from many things including the Army Air Corps and aviation schools. There's a widespread prejudice that blacks lack the aptitude to fly." The flight, Hardesty says, "has no technical significance, it broke no air record. If anything it was a rather slow movement across the continent. ... But it's just the phenomenon of blacks doing that."
Beyond the parties in New York, the achievement brought very little reward.
"One morning we woke up and it was over," Allen said in 1982. "New York had moved on to some other sensation. We never did find anyone who'd admit offering the $1,000 prize."
On returning west, their plane crashed in Pennsylvania. Too broke to pay for repairs, they rode buses back to California.
To raise money to retrieve the plane, Banning signed on to fly at air shows. On Feb. 5, 1933, at a show near San Diego, he was the passenger in a plane flown by a young Navy pilot. Some accounts said the white pilot flew the plane because he did not trust the black Banning. Hart says, rather, that the young man was showing off for his veteran passenger when he lost control. The plane dived and crashed, killing both.
"The dead aviator was a trail blazer in every sense of the word," the Pittsburgh Courier reported. "Fearless, laughing at the odds, flirting with death, and withal so modest and unassuming that he made countless friends, he was the type of pioneer America could be proud of."'
Allen went on to start a flying school in Los Angeles and to work as a mechanic for Douglas Aircraft in California. Later he returned to his home state and became a lecturer and guide at the Oklahoma Air Space Museum. He also became an inspirational speaker.
He would tell young people that he was encouraged once by aviator Amelia Earhart.
"Don't ever fight your opposition," he said she told him. "Use your energy to get where you want to go."
A version of this story appeared in Newsday on Feb. 21, 2001.