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 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: 18,000 peo­ple lost their lives in state­side training acci­dents during the pro­gram, and many 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—a quar­ter mil­lion in all—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—to say nothing of war­planes churned out by 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

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.

99th Fighter Squadron mechanic and P-51 Mustang332nd Fighter Group pilots at Ramitelli Airfield, Italy

Left: 99th Fighter Squadron mechanic reloading a P‑51 Mustang, September 1944.

Right: Pilots of the 332nd Fighter Group at Ramitelli Airfield (part of the Foggia Airfield Complex in Italy’s southeast), circa August 1944. 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.

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