What Makes a Hero?
Meet James Herman Banning and Find Out!!

James Herman BanningOn November 5, 1899, James Herman Banning arrived in the world, just as the age of flight began its takeoff. His mother first cradled him in her arms the same year Orville and Wilbur Wright started their quest to build a flying machine.

As the boy called Herman learned to walk and talk on his family’s rural Oklahoma homestead, the Wright brothers studied lift, propulsion and control. And on Dec. 17, 1903, when the Wright brothers took to the sky in a propeller-driven aircraft at Kill Devil Hills in North Carolina, Herman was still just learning to leap and jump.

At six years old, he tore across the red dirt fields of his family’s farm, the string of a kite held tightly in his hand. As he looked longingly up at the speck of paper on its cross of sticks flapping against the deep blue of the Oklahoma sky, the Wright brothers were completing their most impressive feat yet, an unprecedented 39-minute triumph over Earth’s gravity.

And at that moment, Banning knew he wanted to fly as well.

Mainstream America had used the voice of prejudice and hatred to decide that African Americans shouldn’t be allowed in the sky. America decided to judge Banning’s ability on the basis of his skin color.

Banning didn’t listen. He heard a completely different voice, one that said, “You can fly!” He tried to sign up with several flight schools. They all turned him down.

No school or individual would lend Banning the plane he needed so that he could complete his required solo hours in the air. Banning refused to be daunted. He bought the engine from Fisher’s crashed plane and accumulated plane and auto scraps to build Miss Ames. Flying his rickety homemade craft, he earned his solo flight hours and became the first African-American pilot licensed by the Department of Commerce in the United States.

Banning news clippingsBanning believed strongly that freedom in the sky would help create freedom on the ground. He came up with an audacious plan to become the first African-American to fly across the country during the Great Depression, a time when all communities were looking for heroes to take their minds off dire economic straits. He wanted to be an aviation hero like Charles Lindbergh.

But Lucky Lindy had a custom-built plane and scads of money from financial backers to pave the way to achieving his dream of flying across the Atlantic. Lindy also had the blessing of the major newspapers, who covered his every move.

Banning had no backers and owned a dilapidated plane with a 14-year-old engine. And none of the large newspapers would bother writing about him.

Banning went looking for supporters on his own. He found a gifted mechanic named Thomas Cox Allen, who bought into the adventure for $200. Allen came up with the ingenious idea to fund their flight by soliciting small donations from people in each town they landed in, whether a warm meal, a place to sleep, or money for gas for the next leg of their journey. The donors would then inscribe their names on what Banning and Allen called “The Gold Book” — the wing of their plane. In this way, each contributor would share in a piece of history. Twenty-four communities participated and sixty-five individuals inscribed their names on The Gold Book, as Banning and Allen made their way across America. The dreams of many flew with them.

Because they were black and had no money, Banning and Allen not only had to fly the “crate;” they had to be able to service it as well. As Banning and Allen finally started to attract some attention, they became known as “the suntanned editions of Lindy.”

After an exhausting, adventure-filled twenty-one days of flight, Banning gloriously circled the Statue of Liberty and put down at Valley Stream Airport, in the suburbs of New York City.

Read James Herman Banning’s life story, On Freedom’s Wings, and find out more about his struggles and triumphs!