This book for kids is, as the subtitle says, “The True Story of James Herman Banning, the First African American Pilot to Fly Across the United States.”
The book begins by describing how five-year-old James (he was born on November 5, 1900 in Oklahoma) loved flying kites and declared “One day, I’m goin’ to build a kite big enough to ride on.” (The authors availed themselves of a number of primary documents, referenced in the back matter.)
James was able to read about new “flying machines” in the first and only Black library in Oklahoma, eighty-two miles away. James’ parents took their kids there twice a year.
When James heard that there would be an airplane at a local fair in 1911, he not only went, but dashed into the plane and sat in the seat. He was chased off, but the experience only fueled his dreams of flying.
As an adult, James opened a machinery repair shop. One day a pilot came in, and James asked if he would teach him to fly. Lieutenant Raymond Fisher miraculously didn’t care that James was Black, and agreed to teach him. A year later, in April 1926, it was finally time for James to solo. But when he arrived at Fisher’s field, he found Fisher had died in a plane crash that very morning. No one else would lend him a plane to earn his pilot’s license, so he decided to build his own.
He finally received his pilot’s license but wanted more:
“He wanted to learn to barnstorm: to loop-the-loop, to barrel roll, and to make a dead-stick landing.”
Clearly nothing was going to stop James, and he accomplished these feats as well.
Meanwhile, in California, William Powell was looking for Black pilots for a flight school. James read about it, packed his things, moved to Los Angeles, and was hired by Powell on the spot as chief pilot.
For the next three years, James taught Black men and women to fly as well as to perform stunts. In 1931 they put on the first all-Black air show.
In 1932, the author writes, “Banning left the aero club to follow a new dream: he wanted to be the first Black man to fly from Los Angeles to New York.” He needed a plane, though, and a friend had an old dilapidated one he could use. Thomas Cox Allen, a local Black mechanic, knew how to fix plane engines and shared James’s dream, so they worked together. They had little money for the trip, however, and decided to call themselves “The Flying Hobos.”
On September 19, 1932, the two took off from Los Angeles. The engine died several times during the trip. They finally made it to New York after traveling for twenty-one days over 3,300 miles, having gotten a lot of help from contributions along the way. The author ends:
“That night they celebrated with the biggest stars in Harlem: Cab Calloway, Mrs. Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson, and Louis Armstrong. After years of dreaming, Banning and Allen were stars, too.”
Banning would die just four months after his epic flight, in an airshow crash.
The book concludes with a note, quotation sources, and lists of articles, interviews, and further resources.
Illustrator Floyd Cooper has won multiple awards for his artwork. He uses a technique he calls “a subtractive process” by painting an illustration board with oil paint, and then applying an eraser to the paintings. The result lends softness, warmth, and texture to his pictures, as well as the suggestion (enhanced by his research) that readers are seeing historical representations.
Discussion: Many school kids learn about the pioneering flights of Charles Lindberg, who, at age 25 in 1927 made a nonstop flight from New York City to Paris. Lindberg was hardly a role model: he was a Nazi sympathizer and was believed to have had a hand in the kidnapping of his own child. But he was white. The flight of Banning and Allen, unsupported financially unlike Lindberg’s, was exciting and heroic, but remains fairly unknown.
As an Air & Space Magazine history of the cross-country flight by Bannning and Allen reports:
“The Eaglerock [their plane] featured a sputtering, 14-year-old Curtiss OXX-6 engine, and was badly underpowered; according to Banning (who later wrote a series of newspaper articles about the flight), the Eaglerock was ‘put together [with] various cracked-up airplane parts.’ The instruments were also unreliable, including a compass that was off by 30 degrees. Their biggest worry, though, wasn’t the airworthiness of their crate. Although their final destination was a continent away, they’d taken off with just $25 between them.”
Yet these two men persisted, and through ingenuity, talent, and ultimately some luck, realized their goals.
It is a story all school children should know in addition to that of Lindberg’s. They will learn the lesson that an achievement by an execrable white man is considered more notable in American history than a much more amazing feat accomplished by black men.
Evaluation: This book for readers aged 6 and up shows a real-life example of how someone with a strong dream persisted in overcoming considerable obstacles to make it come to fruition. Banning’s story is not only inspiring, but imparts important aspects of history at the turn of the 20th Century.
Published by Crown Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, 2021