Tuskegee Airmen

One of Ernie’s most important personal contributions to aviation was one that was not documented in the newspapers at the time it occurred, so we have no news clippings from that time. Ernie’s contribution was this: From 1930 to 1932, Ernie trained and then helped C. Alfred “Chief” Anderson to become the first African American to earn an Air Transport License, enabling him to fly as a commercial pilot and to train others. From there, Anderson went on to become the Chief Flight Instructor for the Tuskegee Airmen, one of the most effective group of combat pilots ever to be mobilized anywhere. The 332nd Fighter Group is particularly famous for never losing a bomber to enemy fighters while under their escort. Anderson has been described as “The Father of Black Aviation.” Anderson lived from 1907 to 1996.

We should be very clear: Ernie did not teach Anderson how to fly. Anderson faced enormous challenges and was all but self-taught. In spite of that, he came to Ernie already being a very good flier. It is true, though, that Ernie gave Anderson his first formal training.

Born in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, Anderson applied to the Drexel Institute Aviation School, but was rejected for admission because of his race. Later, he tried to join the Army to become a pilot but was again rejected because on grounds of racial discrimination. He said, in fact, that prejudice was so strong in aviation against blacks that he was unable even to get a ride in an airplane. After this, he realized that the only way he was going to be able to learn to fly was to purchase his own airplane.

Anderson saved and borrowed and was finally able to purchase a Vielie Monocoupe. At a number of airports they would chase him away with broom handles. He was able to find a flight school that would teach him about basic maintenance and give him some ground schooling, but they would not give him flight instruction. He spent time at the airport, listening to other pilots talking about taking off and landing, and picked up what he could just by watching airplanes as they would come and go. He then experimented in his own plane, trying to apply what he had learned. Eventually he soloed himself. By 1929 he had earned his pilot’s license.

Even getting the practice and the hours of experience he needed was difficult. Colonel Roosevelt Lewis, a protegé of Anderson's, (interviewed at Moton Field in Tuskegee on 15 Feb 2014) described how Anderson would land at various airfields and not be allowed even to get out of the airplane.

After obtaining his license to fly privately, Anderson wanted to earn an Air Transport License so that he could fly commercially. In 1930, after being turned down many times in his quest to find someone who would help him, Anderson found Ernie. He wrote:

“After being chased away from various airports, I finally found a friend in the person of Mr. Ernest Buehl, a German air force pilot in World War I, who migrated to this country and started an airport in Philadelphia known as the Flying Dutchman. Under his guidance and instruction I finally received a transport license in 1932, after his personal request to the flight officials that I be permitted to take a written examination and flight test to qualify for a commercial license.”

In a more detailed account, Anderson said,

“Of all things I met a man by the name of Ernest Buehl. He was a pilot in the First World War in the German Air Force - he was known as the 'Flying Dutchman.' Someone told me that if I went to see that man he would probably help me qualify to get this license. Sure enough, when I went to him to talk about it he said, 'Sure, I'll give you instruction.' He gave me instruction in spins, steep turns, and perfected me so I could go take a flight check for the Transport license.

Well when we went to take this flight check the inspector didn't want to give it to me. He said, 'Well, I've never given a flight check to a colored boy, and I'm not going to do it now!' I remember Mr. Buehl became very hostile with the man, and threatened him, 'You're going to give him the flight check - he deserves it - he's qualified and I demand that you give him the flight check or else you're going to have to deal with me!' The inspector decided to give me the flight check...

After it was over Mr. Buehl asked him how I did. He said, 'Well he did okay with his flying, and he got a 100% on his written test - I'll give him an 80% and that will pass him.' So that's how I happened to get the first Air Transport License ever issued to a black in the United States.”

We do not know how Anderson met Ernie but we do know that the two remained good friends. The brochure from the 1982 awards banquet, shown above, is one that Ernie saved. Although Ernie was not able to attend, he was connected to the event telephonically. It was arranged so that the audience was able to listen in as Anderson received Ernie's warm congratulations.

From interviewing people who knew Anderson well, it is clear to those of us who knew Ernie well that both men shared important things in common. Professionally, both had a deep respect for excellence. Colonel Lewis, who started his training with Anderson when Lewis was 16 years of age, stated that Anderson insisted that each flight should be completed more skillfully than every flight before. Anderson was a pilot who "flew with his fingers" as opposed to a "yank and bank" kind of pilot. He was a stickler for smooth landings: the airplane should not bounce as it landed. This is exactly how Ernie flew. Personally, both were men who were playful and adventurous. This link will let you hear the portion of this interview in which Col. Lewis talks about Ernie. The full interview was about 15 minutes. This clip is about three and a half minutes.

Photo at right: Charles A. Anderson Jr., Colonel Roosevelt J. Lewis Jr., Colonel Charles McGee. Taken at Moton Field, Tuskegee, Alabama, on 15 February 2014.

Besides training Anderson, Ernie also sold an airplane to Dr. Albert Forsythe and provided him with some initial instruction. Forsythe was a black physician from Atlantic City who had had to go to Canada to get get away from U.S. racism so that he could pursue a medical degree. After purchasing the airplane from Ernie, Forsythe sought out Anderson, who gave him some additional lessons. The two of them, Anderson and Forsythe then set out on a coast to coast, round trip flight across the U.S., becoming the first blacks to accomplish this. The two of them made this flight a deliberate protest against racism. On another flight, in 1934, Anderson and Forsythe visited Tuskegee, where he met several people who would later become involved in setting up a Civilian Pilot Training Program for black men who wanted to become pilots. When Tuskegee was ready to start their program in 1940, Anderson was invited to go there to be their Chief Flight Instructor. Anderson designed the training program, and he designed and build Moton Field to house the program.

In March, 1941, Eleanor Roosevelt was visiting the Infantile Paralysis (polio) Unit at a hospital at Tuskegee and she heard about the flight program. She asked to be taken out to the airfield so that she could see. Anderson recalled:

“The first thing she said was, 'I always heard colored people couldn't fly airplanes, but I see you're flying all around here.' And then she said, 'I'm just going to have to take a flight with you.' Of course all her escorts ran out there and they were all very much opposed to it - 'No Mrs. Roosevelt! You can't do that!' Well she just made up her mind she was going to do it and got in the airplane. You don't argue with the First Lady, so we took off and made the flight, and then when we got back down she said, 'Well, I see you can fly all right!' It wasn't long after that that President Roosevelt's administration decided to have this program called the 'Tuskegee Experiment.'“

The “Tuskegee Experiment” was set up to see if it was possible to train black pilots for military service. This event was dramatized in a 1996 Hollywood movie, the Tuskegee Airmen, with Lawrence Fishburne. Anderson’s training was said to have “touched many thousands of the nation's military and civilian pilots, such as, General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., General Daniel "Chappie" James, Colonel Herbert Carter, and other Tuskegee Airmen during the Tuskegee Experiment.”

In a “learning guide” designed to be used with the movie Tuskegee Airmen, the following background is given:

“The Tuskegee Airmen were the elite, African-American 99th Fighter Squadron (later expanded to the 332nd Fighter Group) commanded by Colonel Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. The Tuskegee Airmen flew more than 700 missions and were the only Fighter Group that never lost a bomber to enemy aircraft. They earned three unit citations, more than 744 Air Medals and Clusters, more than 100 Flying Crosses, 14 Bronze Stars, 8 Purple Hearts, a Silver Star, a Legion of Merit, and the Red Star of Yugoslavia. The Tuskegee Airmen downed 111 enemy fighters, including three of the eight Messerschmitt ME-262 jets shot down by the Allies during the war. The 332nd also destroyed countless targets during ground attack missions and even sunk a German destroyer with machine gun fire that hit the ship's ammunition stores triggering secondary explosions. Sixty-six Tuskegee Airmen (out of a total of 450 sent overseas) lost their lives in combat.”

A more recent movie, by George Lucas, presents a fictionalized account of the Tuskegee Airmen. Red Tails focuses almost entirely on their experiences in combat rather than on their training. Another movie, Double Victory, is a documentary that provides a factual account and includes interviews with actual Tuskegee Airmen. There is a short, informal documentary that you can watch on line, in which Anderson recalls the training of the Airmen. He mentions how he was trained at about 5 minutes 15 seconds into the clip. 

In decades surrounding the time that Ernie trained Anderson, racism was so virulent in the United States that the uniformed pilots of the Tuskegee Airmen were expected to give up their seats on public transportation to any white, including - later - German prisoners of war. In the 1930s, when we were concerned about gathering signs of war in Europe, and at a time when racism in Germany became a focal reason for the U.S. to enter the War, Ernie Buehl, a German-American, was the only person that Alfred Anderson, an African-American, could find who would help him to become a professional aviator. There is a short documentary that places Anderson's pioneering accomplishments in perspective, against the background of racism with which he lived.

Charles Anderson, Chief Anderson's son, (interviewed 15 Feb 2014) described how the Airmen coped with the prejudices of the time. As he said, the Airmen did not look for anyone else to tell them that they were doing a good job. They knew what the standards were for fliers, they knew that they were exceeding those standards, and they supported one another with their mutual respect.

After the War, the Airmen returned home to the United States, to the life of legalized discrimination and prejudice. In Europe they could feel for the first time that they were identified as Americans rather than as a member of a race. Coming back to the United States, many as officers, they were not as willing to accept the segregation of the times. In 1945, at Freeman Field, in Seymour, Indiana, black officers were not allowed to use the Officers Club or even to go into the PX to buy a candy bar. At the same time, German prisoners of war were allowed to come and go freely on the base. A group of black officers decided to challenge the policy of segregation on base. In small groups, they entered the whites-only Officers Club and asked to be served. As a result they were arrested. The so-called Freeman Field Mutiny "is generally regarded by historians of the Civil Rights Movement as an important step toward full integration of the armed forces and as a model for later efforts to integrate public facilities through civil disobedience." 

In Ernie's entire career, this was the single contribution that only he could have made. When he flew across the continent in 1920 to help open the airmail, or when he helped open the Canadian north, or when he helped prepare aircraft for Roald Amundsen, what he was doing could have been done by another skilled mechanic. When he taught Anderson and then sponsored him for his air transport license, there was no one else who would do what Ernie did. This was an act that did not require merely a skilled pilot and trainer, it required a man who had the vision and courage to ignore the prejudices of his day, and as it was, in their particular time and place, only Ernie had the particular combination of skills and moral force to make this happen. 

Many people including, Colonel Roosevelt Lewis, Anderson's son Charles, and others at Tuskegee University who are familiar with this story, such as Professor Vascar G. Harris, Ph.D., of the Department of Aerospace Science Engineering (interviewed 15 Feb 2014), flatly state that if Ernie had not agreed to help Anderson, the Tuskegee Airmen would never have come into being. Anderson had the intelligence and personality to bring the Airmen into being, but it took Ernie to open the door for him.

Anderson was not the only flyer of the Tuskegee Airmen whom Ernie trained. He also trained Major Bertram A. Levy. According to Levy, Ernie "was the only one in the Philly area who would teach a black student." However, having personally interviewed several of the original Tuskegee Airmen who have survived to 2012, it appears that Ernie did not travel to Tuskegee to work with any trainees there. He had no direct connection with the "Tuskegee Experiment." We do not know the circumstances in which he trained Levy.

The importance of the Airmen as positive role models is mentioned by Toby Tolbert, another African-American pilot trained by Ernie. Reminiscing in 2012, Tolbert said that when he was growing up there were few well-known black men he could idolize. As he said, there was the boxer, Joe Lewis, but “all he could do was fight.” Anderson and the Airmen were the positive role models for him: they gave him a pattern to emulate for a successful life.

The continuing influence of the Tuskegee Airmen is significant in their role of mentoring children and youth. This is a primary mission of the Tuskegee Airmen, Inc., an organization whose membership is open to anyone who believes in the importance of guiding the next generation. According to their website:

"TAI’s chapters use the life lessons learned from the legacy of the original Tuskegee Airmen – determination, courage, refusal to accept limits, the ability to seize opportunity – to teach career and leadership lessons in a variety of aviation-themed educational programs on a local level. TAI itself also supports nationally an active, well-endowed Scholarship Foundation."

In appreciation of Ernie's contribution, General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. attended Ernie's funeral and organized a fly-over that featured the "missing man" formation.

Photo at right: Colonel Charles McGee visits with the great- grandson of Chief Anderson while the boy's grandfather, Charles Anderson, and family friend, Jerry McRae, look on. Taken at Moton Field, Tuskegee, Alabama, on 15 February 2014.

Sources for this page

Mark Taylor,
Apr 25, 2011, 10:16 AM