Charles Anderson

Charles Alfred Anderson was born on February 9, 1907, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. His parents were Iverson and Jamie Anderson.

As a child, Charles was fascinated by airplanes. By age twenty, he had saved enough money for flying lessons. However, no one was willing to teach a young black man how to fly. Not one to be deterred, he attended aviation ground school and learned airplane mechanics. He also hung around airports and picked up information from white pilots whenever possible.[1]

It soon became apparent to him that he would only learn to fly if he owned his own plane. Therefore, Anderson took his savings and loans from friends and family and purchased a Velie Monocoupe. Members of a flying club eventually allowed him to join. However, instruction was not offered. Therefore, Anderson taught himself how to fly a plane. He would taxi his airplane around a field and periodically gun the engine. Eventually, he would find himself slightly in the air. As his confidence grew, he taught himself to take off and land safely.[2]

One member of the club, an experienced pilot named Russell Thaw, did not own an airplane but wanted to visit his mother on weekends in Atlantic City. Therefore, Thaw and Anderson made a deal. Thaw would rent the plane for the weekends, but he would allow Anderson to come with him so that he could gain valuable cross-country experience. Because of this deal, Anderson earned his pilot’s license in August 1929.[3]

Anderson then wanted to obtain an air transport pilot’s license, but his race made it difficult once again. Help would come from an unlikely source. Ernest H. Buehl, a German aviator known as the Flying Dutchman, took Anderson under his wing and gave him further instruction. Because of his help, in February 1932, Anderson became the first African American to receive an air fighter’s license from the Civil Aeronomics Administration.[4]

On June 24, 1932, Anderson married Gertrude Nelson, his childhood sweetheart. The pair would go on to have two sons.

In July 1933, Charles met Dr. Albert E. Forsythe, an African American physician and pilot who shared Charles’s goal of introducing fellow African Americans to the aviation field. The pair decided to do this through record-breaking and attention-getting flights. They made the first transcontinental trip by black pilots when they traveled from Atlantic City, New Jersey, to Los Angeles, California.[5] From there, they continued to make record-setting flights, and by the summer of 1934, they had captured the world’s attention. By September 1938, Anderson was hired as a flight instructor for the Civilian Pilot Training Program at Howard University.[6]

In 1940, Anderson was recruited by the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. There, he served as a Chief Civilian Flight Instructor for the new Army Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP). While instructing there, his students gave him the nickname ‘Chief,’ which would remain with him for the rest of his life.[7]

On April 11, 1941, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was at the Tuskegee Institute’s children’s hospital. At that point in time, she was unaware that there was a flight program, and when she noticed airplanes in the air, she asked if she couldn’t meet with their chief instructor. The first lady was introduced to Anderson, and upon meeting, she told him that she had heard that ” colored people couldn’t fly.” She went on to say that he clearly could and, therefore, “I’m just going to have to take a flight with you.” Although her security detail was not happy about the change in plan, the first lady got into Anderson’s plane and returned forty minutes later, clearly delighted. Upon returning, the first lady exclaimed, “Well I can see you can fly, all right!” This flight is still known as the flight that changed history. Her experience there helped boost the Roosevelt administration, which had just established the Tuskegee Airmen Experiment, to explore the possibility of training African American pilots for military service.[8]

By June 1941, Anderson was selected by the army as Tuskegee Ground Commander and Chief Instructor for aviation cadets of the 99th Pursuit Squadron. This was the United States’ first all-black fighter squadron.[9]

After the war, Anderson continued to provide ground and flight training to students in Tuskegee, Alabama. In 1951, he began training Army and Air Force ROTC cadets along with private students. In 1967, he co-founded the non-profit Negro Airmen International, the oldest African American pilot organization in the world. Through this non-profit organization, Anderson established a summer flight academy for youth interested in aviation. He continued to instruct students until 1989.[10]

Charles Alfred “Chief” Anderson passed away on April 13, 1996, in Tuskegee, Alabama. Throughout his life, he taught many other aviation pioneers, such as General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. and General Daniel “Chappie” James Sr. In March 2014, the United States Postal Service announced a stamp commemorating his memory.


[1] “Gathering of Eagles Foundation :: Anderson, C. Alfred ‘Chief,’” November 2, 2013, https://web.archive.org/web/20131102171010/http://www.goefoundation.com/index.php/eagles/biographies/a/anderson-c.-alfred-chief/.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Pope Brock, “Chief Anderson; When the Skies Were Unfriendly, This Pioneer Aviator Opened the Blue Yonder to Blacks,” People Weekly 30, no. 22 (November 28, 1988): 149.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Historical Research Agency, Air Force, “Charles “Chief” Anderson,” United States National Park Service.
[7] “Gathering of Eagles Foundation :: Anderson, C. Alfred ‘Chief,’” November 2, 2013.
[8] Ibid.
[9] James Haskins, Black Eagles: African Americans in Aviation (Scholastic Incorporated, 1995).
[10] Kaplan Gubert, “Distinguished African Americans in Aviation and Space Science,” Library of Congress Cataloging In-Publication-Data: The Orxy Press., 2022.

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