Spann Watson, who helped break the color bar in the military as one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, then used his position as an employee of the Federal Aviation Administration to agitate for integration among commercial airline crews, died of complications of pneumonia late Thursday.
Watson, who lived in Westbury, died at Winthrop University Hospital in Mineola. He was 93.
"He was unwavering in discipline and unwavering in love," said the youngest of his five children, Weyman Watson, of South Orange N.J. "You got both, whether you wanted it or not."
Watson, who had earned a pilots license in the late 1930s while studying mechanical engineering at Howard University, was rejected by an Army recruiter in 1940 when Watson said he wanted to fly military planes.
He had been inspired to seek his wings when, on July 4, 1927, he witnessed Charles Lindbergh landing his signature Spirit of St. Louis at Teterboro Airport in New Jersey. Lindbergh had become a national hero six weeks earlier when he became the first person ever to fly solo nonstop between New York and Paris.
But on Columbus Day 1940, a recruiter at Long Island's Mitchel Field told Watson there were no positions for black pilots in the U.S. Army.
In an interview with Newsday on his 90th birthday, Watson said he got back into his mother's Buick Special and drove back to his New Jersey home.
Things turned in his favor the next year, when pressure by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People forced the War Department to set up an Army program that opened pilot training to black men.
While at Tuskegee, he met Edna Webster, a civilian employee at the airfield, and they were married on Dec. 17, 1943.
Watson often said it was an administrative snafu that led to his early return to the United States, setting in motion his role as an organizer of the Tuskegee Airmen. With his wartime service in Europe over, Watson became an Army flight instructor, helping to train other black pilots.
In that position, he became familiar with almost all of the roughly 1,000 pilots who graduated from the Tuskegee program - highly trained fliers who after the war were barred by racial discrimination from getting jobs in the commercial airline industry.
Watson said when he retired from the military in 1965 to become an affirmative action specialist for the FAA, he made the integration of commercial cockpits a priority.
At his 90th birthday celebration, several black airline employees traveled from as far away as Denver to attend, saying without his advocacy, their careers might never have gotten off the ground.
Watson said his helping pave the way for others was among his life's most satisfying accomplishments.
"I've done so much I'm proud of," Watson, one of the original Tuskegee Airmen, said later. "That's the real reward."
In addition to his wife and son, Watson is survived by another son, Spann Marlowe Watson, of Silver Spring, Md., and daughters Cynthia Hopson, of Bratenahl, Ohio and Dianne Capers, of Hempstead. Another son, Capt. Orrin Watson, an Air Force flier, died in 1981.
Funeral arrangements have yet to be finalized.