Pilot Bill Wilkerson of Pleasant Garden, North Carolina was among the first black pilots in the country. Wilkerson flew 15 years for Piedmont Airlines, which became a part of US Airways in 1989. In 1980, he became the second black person to earn the rank of captain with the company. The retired pilot still wears his captains’ uniform while he gives tours at the North Carolina Transportation Museum.

Wilkerson grew up in the projects of Knoxville, Tennessee with his two other siblings and his single mother, who worked as a domestic. She gave her kids the books she received from her clients.

Wilkerson’s mother purchased “The Library of Universal Knowledge” for her children and young Bill read the chapter called “How to Fly.” The boy ‘flew around the world’ through the articles inside National Geographic and Reader’s Digest. He was so intrigued, he engulfed himself in model airplanes and begged his mother for flying lessons. She initially refused, so Wilkerson and his friend paid $5 for a flying lesson at the Knoxville airport. His mother eventually gave in, and by the time he was 16 years old, Wilkerson was in flight school. Five years later, he obtained his pilot’s license.

Wilkerson enlisted in the Air Force and served as a mechanic until 1971. Three years later he got the job at Piedmont. While Piedmont was jokingly called the “puddle jumper” airline, Wilkerson was proud to work as one of the first and few black pilots in the industry. He gained much attention as one of the few black men in uniform.

Wilkerson logged more than 17,000 hours as a pilot for Piedmont. He was finally able to take his family to the places he’d only seen in the National Geographic magazine as a child. In 2011, he was inducted into the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame.

Bill Wilkerson continues to give tours at the North Carolina Transportation museum and work with the Federal Aviation Administration on pilot safety issues.

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6 thoughts on “Little Known Black History Fact: Bill Wilkerson

  1. Charles H. Atkinson on said:

    George Washington Carver State Park was the first Negro State Park in the state of Georgia, located on Lake Allatoona. In 1950, the state leased the land for 25 years from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
    History-In 1950, Atlanta resident and former Tuskegee Airman John Loyd Atkinson Sr. was instrumental in establishing George Washington Carver State Park (1950–1975), the state’s only park ever named for an African American.
    Atkinson initially had leased the 345 acres (1.4 km2) adjacent to Red Top Mountain Park from the Corps of Engineers with the intention of establishing a private resort for Blacks, like American Beach, Florida. Governor Herman Talmadge helped establish the park and assimilate it into Red Top Mountain State Park, although operated and maintained separately. Atkinson became the park superintendent, the first African-American park manager in the state, serving from 1950 to 1958. James Clarence Benham, father of Georgia Supreme Court Justice Robert Benham, became Carver Park’s second park manager, serving for three years.

  2. ms veenie on said:

    Atkinson and TJMS thank you for these great inspirational stories. The amazing thing is that I haven’t heard either one previously. Much love and congrats for the knowledge and inspiration.

  3. Charles H. Atkinson on said:

    Within a decade of the Wright brothers’ 1903 flight, in 1912, a Pennsylvanian named Emory Malick unknowingly began apattern by having to go all the way to Southern California before he could find somebody willing to teach a black person how to fly. He became the first African-American to earn a pilot’s license. But after Malick, doors for black aviators slammed shut. American flight instructors and licensing agencies refused to let another African-American fly with their support for the next decade and a half, and so they needed to invent other ways to work around those who would keep them grounded. Eugene Bullard went to France and, in World War I, flew for the Lafayette Escadrille, the all-American squadron fighting for the French. He painted the words “Tout le sang qui coule est rouge!”—“All blood runs red”—on his fuselage. Not so for America’s military once it joined the war. No matter how desperate its need for experienced combat pilots, the U.S. refused to let Bullard fly.

  4. Charles H. Atkinson on said:

    David Harris says his place in U.S. history is secure only because so many before him were discriminated against and disqualified.
    “My timing was kind of lucky,” Harris said. “You had a slug of Tuskegee Airmen out of World War II who came before me, but this nation wasn’t ready to have African-American pilots.
    “By the time I came along in 1964 and was hired by American, I was in the right place at the right time with the right stuff.”
    Harris, 73, a 30-year veteran pilot at American Airlines who retired in 1994, was honored Wednesday evening by American as the nation’s first African-American pilot to fly for a major commercial airline.

    Read more from this Tulsa World article at http://www.tulsaworld.com/business/article.aspx?articleID=20080228_5_E3_spanc46213

  5. Charles H. Atkinson on said:

    Pilot Bill Wilkerson of Pleasant Garden, North Carolina was among the first black COMMERCIAL pilots in the country…

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