Washington, D.C. December 27, 1938

In 1938 America’s armed forces had less than 3,000 pro­fes­sional pilots. To speed the pro­duc­tion of pilots out­side the U.S. armed ser­vices, Pre­si­dent Franklin D. Roose­velt unveiled the Civil­ian Pilot Training Pro­gram (CPTP) on this date in 1938. The pro­gram was intended, the presi­dent said, to pro­vide a boost to gene­ral avi­a­tion by offering pilot training to 20,000 col­lege stu­dents a year. Its poten­tial for national defense was unstated but undis­guised, espe­cially since Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy had begun training thou­sands of young people to become pilots in govern­ment-sponsored programs at what were military flight training academies.

Participants in Roosevelt’s CPTP pro­gram, renamed the War Training Ser­vice (WTS) after the Japa­nese sur­prise attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Decem­ber 7, 1941, agreed to enter the mili­tary after suc­cess­fully com­pleting flight training. At its peak, 1,132 edu­ca­tional insti­tu­tions and 1,460 flight schools pro­duced avi­a­tion cadets—men and women both—though not with­out risk to both students and instruc­tors: 18,000 peo­ple lost their lives in state­side training accidents during the program, and many thousands of planes were damaged or destroyed.

Teaching college students to fly greatly aug­mented the num­ber of pilots avail­able to the U.S. armed forces. The inclu­sion of Alabama’s Tuske­gee Insti­tute in the ranks of CPTP parti­ci­pants (see accom­panying story), along with Hamp­ton Insti­tute, Virginia State Uni­ver­sity, and Howard Uni­ver­sity, helped open the doors for the first African Amer­i­can mili­tary pilots. It was a war-winning combination all around.

Along with the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy training pro­grams, the civil­ian flight training pro­gram pro­duced more than enough quali­fied pilots—435,165 men and women, including astro­naut John Glenn and Senator George McGovern—while at its 1944 peak Amer­i­can indus­try pro­duced 96,000 air­craft, up from a little more than 6,000 in 1940. The U.S. mili­tary alone pur­chased a quar­ter of a mil­lion war­planes during the war. (In 1938 the U.S. arse­nal of air­craft num­bered just over 4,000, while Germany had between 5,000 and 10,000 planes with an an­nual pro­duc­tion capa­city of 12,000 and Italy 3,000 with an an­nual capa­city of 2,400 planes.) By 1944 Germany and Japan had lost many of their best pilots and never recovered, and their air­craft pro­duc­tion too was out-produced by U.S. manu­fac­turers (Ford Motor Com­pany built a com­plete four-engine B‑24 Liber­ator every hour at its huge Willow Run, Michi­gan, facil­ity)—to say nothing of war­planes churned out by air­craft manu­fac­turers in Canada, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union. The unpre­ce­dented expan­sion of America’s mili­tary avi­a­tion capabilities made an American, and an Allied, victory inevitable.

Tuskegee Airmen, the First African American Military Aviators in the U.S. Armed Forces

Tuskegee Airmen: First class of Tuskegee cadets, Tuskegee, Alabama, 1941Tuskegee Airmen, Southern Italy or North Africa

Left: Maj. James A. Ellison reviews the first class of Tuskegee cadets and the flight line at the U.S. Army Air Corps basic and advanced flying school, Tuskegee, Alabama, 1941.

Right: Tuskegee Airmen, circa May 1942 to August 1943. Location unknown but likely Southern Italy or North Africa.

Tuskegee Airmen: 99th Fighter Squadron mechanic and P-51 MustangTuskegee Airmen: 332nd Fighter Group pilots at Ramitelli Airfield, Italy

Left: 99th Fighter Squadron mechanic reloading a P‑51 Mustang, September 1944. The 99th Fighter Squad­ron (orig­i­nally, 99th Pur­suit Squad­ron) was America’s first all-black flying unit and was com­manded by Lt. Col. Benja­min O. Davis, Jr. Davis next assumed com­mand of the 332nd Fighter Group, another all-black flying unit, whose mis­sion was escorting Amer­i­can B‑17 Flying For­tresses and B‑24 Liber­ators to Axis targets in Southern Europe and Germany. Davis himself flew 60 missions in Bell P‑39 Airacobras, Curtiss P‑40 War­hawks, Republic P‑47 Thunderbolts, and North American P‑51 Mustangs.

Right: Pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group at Ramitelli Pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group at Ramitelli Airfield (part of the Foggia Airfield Complex in Italy’s south­east), August 1944. Left to right: Lieute­nants Dempsey W. Morgan Jr., Carroll S. Woods, and Robert H. Nelson Jr., Capt. Andrew D. Turner, and Lt. Clarence P. Lester, who had three enemy fighters to his credit. For­mally the 99th Fighter Squadron formed the 332nd Fighter Group and the 477th Bom­bard­ment Group of the U.S. Army Air Forces. They were known as “Red Tails” for the distinc­tive designs on their planes; they earned the nick­name “Red Tail Angels” with their repu­ta­tion for staying with the bomber planes they escorted. By the end of the war, the Red Tails had destroyed some 260 Axis air­craft in the air and on the ground while losing 32 of their own. It was an out­standing record, and it earned the 332nd Fighter Group a Distinguished Unit Citation.

Contemporary U.S. Army Air Forces’ Tribute to Tuskegee Airmen