Saturday, July 30, 2011

Mystery Solved

Of course there is still much I'd like to know, but my brother had an amazing find this week. For years we've both been trying to find out more about the event that lead to our uncle's death. My uncle, Albert Burghardt, died in San Diego, California, piloting an aircraft in 1933. He was a first generation American, born to German Russian immigrants. I knew that he was in the Navy and what his injuries were, but that was all. While searching on the Internet, my brother finally solved the mystery.

Keep in mind that in 1933, an enlisted man who learned to fly could become a pilot, regardless of his original M.O.S. Also, wrecks were were so common from failures, that dying in a plane crash really spoke little to a pilot's competence.

James Herman Banning was the first licensed African American male pilot in the nation. He and another African American pilot, Thomas C. Allen, became the first African American pilots to fly coast-to-coast from Los Angeles to Long Island, NY, in 1932. Using a plane pieced together from junkyard parts, they made the 3,300 mile trip. The pilots had to raise money each time they stopped.

Banning was refused the use of an airplane by the Airtech Flying school in San Diego because he was an African American man and not believed to be a capable pilot. My uncle, who was a Navy pilot, took the plane up with Banning as a passenger in the biplane. Banning was sitting in the front open cockpit during a San Diego air show at Camp Kearney. The plane stalled and fell into a fatal spin in front of 2,000 people who witnessed the plane hurtle to the earth and crackup. Banning died an hour after the crash, and was hailed as a martyr who made the supreme sacrifice.

My uncle died three days later. I feel sad that the newspaper article I read maligned him as an incompetent and gave him no credit for his contribution considering that time in history. Banning was significant in early aviation, but as a family, we are proud of my uncle and the his determination as well.

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