James Herman Banning (November 5, 1899 – February 5, 1933), the son of Riley and Cora Banning, was born on an Oklahoma homestead. Despite prejudice and lack of resources, he decided that one day he was going to fly an airplane. What he didn't know was that the only way he was going to be able to fly enough hours to earn a pilot’s license would be to build his own plane. Banning grew up, moved to Iowa, and applied to flight schools. No flight schools would take him. He found a pilot, a Lt. Fisher, who agreed to teach Banning to fly as long as their lessons were ‘on the sly.’ Lt. Fisher died in a plane crash just as Banning was ready to solo. Though Banning, who witnessed the fatal accident, was crushed, his determination to fly never flagged. But without Fisher’s help, he was in trouble. No school or individual would lend Banning the plane he needed so that he could complete his required solo hours in the air. Banning refused to be daunted. He bought the engine from Fisher’s crashed plane and accumulated plane and auto scraps to build Miss Ames. Flying his rickety homemade craft, he earned his solo flight hours and became the first African-American to receive a pilot's license from the United States Department of Commerce. He had no intention of stopping there.
The Historic Flight Banning believed strongly that freedom in the sky would help create freedom on the ground. He came up with an audacious plan to become the first African-American to fly across the country during the Great Depression, a time when all communities were looking for heroes to take their minds off dire economic straits. He wanted to be an aviation hero like Charles Lindbergh. But Lucky Lindy had a custom-built plane and scads of money from financial backers to pave the way to achieving his dream of flying across the Atlantic. Lindy also had the blessing of the major newspapers, who covered his every move. Banning had no backers and owned a dilapidated plane with a 14-year-old engine. And none of the large newspapers would bother writing about him. Banning went looking for supporters on his own. He found a gifted mechanic named Thomas Cox Allen, who he persuaded to buy into the adventure for $200. Allen came up with the ingenious idea to fund their flight by soliciting small donations from people in each town they landed in, whether a warm meal, a place to sleep, or money for gas for the next leg of their journey. The donors would then inscribe their names on what Banning and Allen called “The Gold Book” — the wing of their plane. In this way, each contributor would share in a piece of history. Twenty-four communities participated and sixty-five individuals inscribed their names on The Gold Book, as Banning and Allen made their way across America. The dreams of many flew with them. Their adventures were numerous. Because they were black and had no money, Banning and Allen not only had to fly the “crate;” they had to be able to service it as well. This added to the adventure greatly. At times, they had to replace or rebuild parts that had been destroyed during several “crack-ups” (forced landings), or had malfunctioned while they were still in the air. In one city, they crashed into a farm and the whole town worked to find the right car parts to send them on their way. In another city, Allen had to sell his suit for gas money. One night they slept in a haystack and came close to freezing to death. The following morning, a half-frozen Allen had to stand in front of the plane and guide Banning between a brush pile and a haystack for takeoff. By prior agreement, Allen stood in front of the plane, and guided it along a small stretch of earth. He then hurled his body on the ground when Banning’s plane had traveled half the length of the field. Banning knew Allen’s hurling body meant it was time to ‘pull her up’ and Banning flew the plane right over the prone Allen. Allen then hitched a ride to their next destination. Another time, in Pittsburgh, the Democratic Party paid for the last leg of their journey in exchange for Banning and Allen tossing 15,000 ‘Vote Roosevelt’ flyers out of the cockpit as they flew over farms and small towns on their way to New York. As Banning and Allen finally started to attract some attention, they became known as “the suntanned editions of Lindy.” After an exhausting, adventure-filled twenty-one days of flight, Banning triumphantly circled the Statue of Liberty and put down at Valley Stream Airport, in the suburbs of New York City. Yet Banning’s triumph wasn’t met by fanfare, or newspapermen. As a “race pilot,” his accomplishment was not considered news-worthy by white-owned newspapers. Unfazed, Banning began the return flight to Los Angeles. The miles finally took their toll on the old airplane. Banning crash-landed in Pennsylvania. This time there would be no patching it together on the cheap. Leaving the plane behind, Banning, along with Allen, returned West in the back of a bus, where, unlike in the sky, segregation was still a way of life.
Death Banning died in a plane crash at the hands of an unlicensed Navy mechanic, while trying to raise money by barnstorming to repair his beloved plane. Banning was scheduled to fly a number of stunts in an AirTech Air Show. On the day of the show, the Chief Flight instructor, Arnet Speers, refused to allow Banning to fly in one of his planes. Speers believed Banning couldn’t be trusted because of the color of his skin. An unlicensed white Naval mechanic offered Banning the use of his friend’s plane. The catch? The mechanic wanted to perform a stunt at the airshow and wanted Banning to fly with him. Banning agreed to fly along as a passenger. The mechanic attempted a loop, stalled the plane, and the plane spun into the ground in front of 2,000 horrified spectators. Banning was pulled from the wreckage alive but unconscious. He died an hour later. When friends of Banning’s tried to rescue his plane in honor of him, they found it had, without Banning’s knowledge or permission, been sold for scrap. The Gold Book, the physical record of the journey and all the donors, was destroyed. While “Lucky Lindy,” — Charles Lindbergh — is a name remembered by many, Banning faded into obscurity.
By Dean Hanley
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