James Banning was the first African-American male aviator to receive his pilot’s license. Born in 1899, Banning’s family moved to Ames, Oklahoma when he was a young adult. After attending Iowa State as an electrical engineering major, James Banning tried to enroll in flight schools but was rejected because he was black.
Banning eventually learned to fly through a U.S. Army pilot. After he completed training, Banning received his pilot license from the U.S. Department of Commerce. He moved to Los Angeles in 1929 and served as the chief pilot for Bessie Coleman’s Aero Club. He flew his own plane affectionately called “Miss Ames” after his former residence in Oklahoma.
Banning teamed with fellow airman Thomas Allen and purchased a plane that was made from old junkyard parts. The men made history by being the first African-Americans to fly coast-to-coast, from LA to New York. The men made the 42-hour trip in 21 days because they had to stop and continuously raise money.
James Banning made a living flying in airshows and transporting political officials. One of his passengers was Oscar Depriest, the first black person elected to serve in U. S. Congress since the Civil War.
Tragedy took the life of James Banning at age 33. During a San Diego airshow that was being held to raise money for a trip back East, the plane went in to a tailspin after climbing 400 feet from the takeoff. Banning was actually in the passenger seat, while Albert Burghardt, a white pilot, flew the plane. The plane crashed at Camp Kearney. Banning was killed in front of a crowd of 2,000 spectators, horrified by the event.