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Friday, July 12, 2013

"The Brown Condor": Unknown African American Fighter Pilot and Innovator

A book jumped at my eyes while at the public library this afternoon. It had a picture of a dashing pilot on the cover and I had to pick it up. Curious, I wrote down the title. The biography was entitled, The Man Called Brown Condor: The Forgotten History of an African American Fighter Pilot, by Thomas E. Simmons. Its subject was nicknamed, "The Brown Condor" and he was personally invited by an Emperor to help modernize a foreign country's aviation in the 1930's. This aviator was also dubbed "The Father of The Tuskegee Airmen." Being from a family of African American Medal of Honorees, (One Tuskegee Airmen and a Montford Point Marine) it certainly piqued my interest.


The "Brown Condor" was born John Charles Robinson in 1903, Florida. His family relocated to Gulfport, Mississippi and at age seven he spotted his first aircraft, a float plane. He became understandably excited but his mother countered with, "a Black man has no business fooling around with airplanes."

Undeterred, similar to female aviator Bessie Coleman, John Charles Robinson would not let a family member's sentiments prevent him from eventually pursuing his dream. Robinson focused his efforts in doing well academically in school. He worked hard to pay for college tuition at Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama. He attended the HBCU to become an automobile mechanic, after realizing the increasing importance of cars in every day life. Robinson wisely left Mississippi for Detroit, home of the major American Automakers.

Robinson ran into a "barnstormer"* who had airplane engine troubles.  Robinson transferred his automotive mechanical skills into repairing the barnstormer's airplane engine. Another young man helped Robinson with his flying lessons. But Robinson needed to attend aviation school in order to obtain his pilot's license. However, he was denied entrance to a Chicago's Curtiss Wright Aviation School because of his race. He then ingeniously became the school's janitor where he was able to eavesdrop on the classes he needed to obtain his pilot's license!  Robinson still maintained a full time job as an auto mechanic. An instructor was impressed with him and persuaded the school to allow him to enroll.

Robinson built his own plane, started his own flying school for African Americans, and helped create a Black airport when airports refused to refuel his plane. He also pushed for an aviation program at his alma mater Tuskegee Institute to train other Black pilots who would later be known as "The Tuskegee Airmen. "The Red Tails" Squadron played an important role in escorting American fighter planes in World War II.


As if these feats were not enough, Robinson was personally invited by Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie to lead the Imperial Ethiopian Air Corps as a colonel and commander. Robinson fought fascism in 1935 when Italy's Mussolini attacked this African nation. As commander of the Ethiopian Air Force, Robinson and his group of pilots and ground crew were responsible for dispatching critical information from the front lines to the capital in Addis Ababa. They served in dangerous missions and "witnessed Italian aircraft spraying mustard gas on thousands of Ethiopian ground troops."

Italy briefly conquered Ethiopia. Robinson who was twice wounded and gassed, returned home a hero.


"There was never been such a demonstration as was accorded the thirty one year old Chicago aviator who left the United States thirteen months ago and literally covered himself in glory trying to preserve the independence of the last African Empire. There are reports that he will be joining the faculty of Tuskegee Institute to teach aviation." 

 From the Chicago Defender, a Negro newspaper on John C. Robinson's heroic return to America where he was greeted by a crowd of twenty thousand supporters in the streets of Chicago.  (Source:

After WWII, Robinson was invited back to helm Ethiopian Airlines. He died at age 51. There is a museum exhibit in his honor in Mississippi. "The Brown Condor's" inspiring story was researched painstakingly for over twenty years by author Thomas E. Simmons.

John C. Robinson represents an individual who would not take no for an answer. He did not get discouraged and focused his energies on achieving his dreams. His indomitable spirit ushered in era of little-known but brave military African American pilots.


*barnstormer: person who participates in stunt air flying

**Condor: a New world vulture

*** Haile Selassie I was emperor of Ethiopia from 1930-1974. He was the last 225 monarchs of a ruling dynasty that is said to have descended from the son of King Solomon and Queen Sheba. Selassie helped modernized the country, traveled abroad, and joined the League of Nations. The ruler went to the League of Nations to protest the Italian occupation of his country. He was named Time Magazine's  "Man of the Year" in 1936 . Haile Selassie's reign ended after famine and unemployment overtook Ethiopia in 1974. He died in 1975, and his remains were found in 1992. The cause of death was ruled a strangulation. Source: www.

Other sources:,,

See my earlier post on African American WWI Pilot who received the Croix De Guerre by the French Government,

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