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

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.

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