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Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Knowing our truths shall set us free!

Janet Harmon Waterford Bragg

Author: Henry M. Holden Publisher: Black Hawk Publishing Co. © Black Hawk Publishing Co.

Black women aspiring to pursue careers in aviation during the first half of the nineteen hundreds encountered seemingly insurmountable obstacles. It was an era when many considered blacks mentally unqualified to become pilots. That perception did not stop Janet Harmon Waterford Bragg from following her dream to fly.
Janet was born in Griffin, Georgia in 1912, as the youngest of seven children, and grew up a tomboy in the shadow of her four older brothers. She graduated from high school in 1927 and attended Spellman College in Atlanta where she earned a degree in nursing. She moved to Chicago to start her career but flying remained a fascination.
One day in 1933 she saw a billboard displaying a bird building a nest around her chicks. The caption read: "Birds learn to fly, why can't you?" That incident clinched it for Janet and she promptly enrolled in the Curtiss Wright Flying School in Chicago. She was the only girl in a class of 26 boys but studied right along with the fellows, learning everything from aerodynamics and meteorology to powerplants and navigation. "The ground school was interesting but I couldn't wait to get up in the air. I finally asked the instructor, "When do we get to do some flying? He laughed and said whenever you're ready.
"I'll never forget my first flight instructor, his nickname was 'Dynamite' and he was a real roughneck. He took me through all sorts of maneuvers on that first flight. I think he thought if he could frighten me or make me sick I'd get scared and never come back, then he'd never have to deal with me again. But I sure fooled him, I loved the ride and couldn't wait to go up again."
Janet continued taking private flying lessons but the $15.00 an hour rate proved to be too costly. The obvious alternative for Janet and her flying friends was to purchase an airplane of their own. Janet used her nurse's savings of $600 to buy an OX-5 International. She later commented, "It was all the money I had at the time but I'll never regret spending it on that airplane." Janet and her friends created their own flying club called the Challenger Air Pilots Association and the members immediately elected Janet as their first president.
Buying the airplane turned out to be easy compared to the problems they faced finding a place where they could fly the machine. Few air fields would accept blacks so Janet and her group cleared their own runway when the village of Robbins, located southwest of Chicago, agreed to give them a piece of land. "We were restricted from flying over the houses and we abided by that but folks still complained. Nearly every Sunday the police would come out and arrest one of us for making too much noise."
It was a rough time for the Challenger club and Janet did what she could to keep her group flying. Besides providing encouragement and support, she devised various fund raising projects to defray flight expenses and to keep flying affordable. In 1939, the members of Janet's group formed the Coffey School of Aviation and they were allowed to participate in the Civilian Pilot Training Program. The program was designed by the government to feed students into the Army Air Corps training program in Tuskegee, Alabama.
When the United States entered World War II, American men marched off to war and those left at home answered their country's call to serve where they could. Janet learned about the WASP program and submitted an application with her flight qualifications. A telegram soon arrived inviting Janet to attend an interview at the Palmer House in Chicago and she was filled with anticipation.
Janet's arrival stunned those in charge, as they had no idea that black women were flying. The startled interviewer asked, "My dear do you fly?" and remarked, "Why I've never interviewed a colored girl before." She questioned Janet about her training and admitted she would have to get authorization before accepting her into the program. Jackie Cochran sent a reply thanking Janet for her interest, but with segregation the norm in the South, and the WASPs housed at the training barracks in Sweetwater, Texas, there would be no place for her to stay. Janet applied further as a flight nurse, only to be told that the quota for "colored nurses" had already been filled.
Janet went on to Tuskegee, Alabama and received advanced flight instruction from Charles "Chief" Anderson, a well known instructor in the black flying community. In 1946 she purchased another airplane, an L-235 Super Cruiser, which she used in her cross-country flying to qualify for her commercial pilot's license.Though she was scolded for entering the testing center from the "Whites Only" door, she passed her commercial written exam with a near perfect score. Her flight test the following week would be the deciding factor. "The air was as smooth as silk when the examiner came out for the checkride. The flight lasted a little more than an hour and I preformed all the maneuvers perfectly, including the forced landing test."
When the flight test was over Chief Anderson anxiously waited to hear the results and asked the examiner how Janet had done. The examiner replied, "I'd put her up against any of your flight instructors, but I've never given a colored girl a commercial pilot's license and I don't intend to now." Janet noticed the tear that rolled down Chief Anderson's face but accepted the examiner's decision graciously. She had come a long way and had overcome many obstacles to experience the discouraging setback but she stood tall in the face of adversity. "I was taught that you couldn't hate people for the things they did. People's actions are based on things they believe in and I accepted that. I told the examiner, "that's alright, I understand" and thanked him for his time." Janet continued flying and was successful in completing her commercial pilot's license on the second try later that same year.
Janet bears no malice for the discrimination she experienced in her struggles to become a pilot and instead believes that the battles were well worth the fight to fly. She identifies with the bumblebee an insect, who on paper is aerodynamically incapable of flying, but in reality flies merrily along. In a way, society placed its aerodynamic limits and restrictions on Janet and her ability, but like the bumblebee, she never let it stop her from completing her flight plan.
The flying exploits of Janet Harmon Waterford Bragg can be found permanently displayed along with her personal flying paraphernalia at the Pima Air and Space Museum in Tucson, Arizona. At 80 years old, she still encourages the youth of her community to follow their dreams and is a charming and entertaining lecturer at national aviation events.
Excerpt from Ladybirds II - The Continuing Story of American Women in Aviation, by Henry M. Holden and Captain Lori Griffith (1994)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Amazing!! Thanks for sharing.The humility alone in such circumstance is an impressive display, not to mention all her accomplishment, determination and study.