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*On this date in 1931, the Negro Formation Flying Group performed in Los Angeles. This event occurred before the Tuskegee Airmen and served to demonstrate to the public that Blacks were skilled enough to handle an airplane.
Put together by William Powell, who had set the date for Labor Day that year, these were three black airplane pilots flying in formation. All he needed was a few Black pilots to perform. Besides himself, Powell knew of Irvin Wells. William Aikens filled out the trio, dubbed by Powell the Negro Formation Flying Group. Nicknamed the Blackbyrds, they flew in formation, though not in aerobatic formation. Two other Blacks, Maxwell Love and Lottie Theodore, performed parachute jumps.
The show’s main feature was the Goodyear blimp Volunteer dropping a rose wreath in honor of Bessie Coleman. Nearly 15,000 spectators showed up, or at least that’s the figure that Powell released to the Black newspapers (white papers wouldn’t have devoted any space to such an event). After that success, Powell scheduled a second show, the Colored Air Circus, which would take place at L.A.’s Eastside Airport. This time Powell planned to put together the largest group of Black pilots in the air at one time; at least five pilots.
He even came up with a name for them: The Five Blackbirds. Marie Dickerson Coker, Irvin Wells, James Banning, William C. Akins, Matthew Campana, and Herbert Julian. As for airplanes, Powell borrowed a Challenger Commander, a Hisso-Eaglerock, a Waco 10, a Kari-Keen, and a Wright J6 Traveler. They were not all painted black. “This is going to be the greatest thing that you have ever gotten into,” he told Coker.