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Denied flying lessons because he was black, he made history

Brittney L. Jackson, The Jackson Sun | 4/17/2018, 6:29 a.m.
As a young boy, Eugene May, 95, dreamed of flying airplanes. In the early 1940s he went to McKellar-Sipes Regional ...
In an April 7, 2018 photo, Eugene May, 95, poses with his 1951 Chrome Swift Global Aircraft at the Gibson County Airport in Milan, Tenn. In December 2017, May was made an honorary member of the Memphis Blackhawks Aviation Association after they learned of his flying accomplishments. (Gail Bailey/The Jackson Sun via AP)

JACKSON, Tenn. — As a young boy, Eugene May, 95, dreamed of flying airplanes. In the early 1940s he went to McKellar-Sipes Regional Airport in Jackson, hoping to get the flying lessons he'd always wanted.

"I wanted to fly more than birds fly," May said.

To May's disappointment, he was denied because he's black, and advised to seek lessons up North, as no one in the state would teach him — so he did.

The first stop was St. Louis, where he was denied again. Then there was renewed hope when May saw an advertisement in a magazine for a flight school outside Chicago. He moved to Gary, Indiana, and finally gained acceptance at the Coffey School of Aeronautics with Cornelius Coffey and Willa Brown.

"Nothing is handed to you on a silver platter," May said. "You've got to put some kind of effort in to get there."

Just like anything else, work is required to get what you want, May explained. His determination to fly couldn't be stopped with a few no's. In 1948, he finally earned his wings.

During the 1940s, aspiring black pilots were limited to where they could receive flying lessons — with some even leaving the country to learn.

Cornelius Coffey, the first African American to establish an aeronautical school in the U.S., and Willa Brown, the first African American woman to earn a commercial pilot's license, are "superheroes," Memphis Blackhawk Aviation Association member and retired air traffic controller Thelma Rudd said.

"They were teaching black people how to fly . and they were good flyers," Rudd said.

Coffey and Brown married in 1939 and co-founded the Cornelius Coffey School of Aeronautics, which was the only non-university aviation program to be part of the Civilian Pilot Training Program, according to blackpast.org. Their efforts helped integrate African Americans into the aviation industry.

After earning her private and commercial pilot's license, Brown taught hundreds of men and women how to fly, many of which became members of the Tuskegee Airmen, the site states.

"He had pictures with him with Cornelius Coffey and Willa Brown in Chicago," Rudd said.

Unfortunately, May's photos and other memorabilia were destroyed with his house in a 2008 tornado that swept through Jackson.

In December 2017, May was made an honorary member of the Memphis Blackhawks Aviation Association after they learned of his flying accomplishments via Morris Fair.

In 1955, a classmate of Fair's talked about his pilot-dad. Sixty-two years later, when they met at their retirement home, Fair learned that pilot was May.

When the Memphis Blackhawks were hosting an event at Fair's church, he told them he knew a black pilot who was flying before the Tuskegee Airmen, and they were soon connected with him.

"For the 95 years that he's been here, and flying for over 50 years — that's amazing," Memphis Blackhawks President Morris Brown said. "The Blackhawks definitely like to honor him for doing so, and we're glad that we got a chance to know him."

May was determined to fly simply because he wanted to. He wasn't looking to be a commercial pilot or for status, he was just following his dream; he just wanted to fly.

His story is an inspiration to anyone faced with an obstacle, Rudd said.

"I hope these young people really understand what that means, and learn to not always accept no," she added.

In 1963, May bought a 1951 Chrome Swift Global Aircraft that he now keeps parked at the Gibson County Airport in Milan.

Due to health conditions, he hasn't been able to fly for about two years — but he has made numerous trips from California to New York and has participated in many air shows over the years.

May is nominated for The Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award, the Federal Aviation Association's most prestigious award. The Master Pilot Award is for a pilot who has exhibited aviation skill and professionalism for at least 50 years.

"I think it's an honor — especially for him to be a private pilot — just because of the expense that it takes to keep flying an airplane for 50 years," Rudd said.

With only an eighth-grade education, earning a pilot's license in the '40s as a black man, and going more than 50 years with a clean flight record, is quite an accomplishment. -- (AP)