Meet the American who taught the Tuskegee Airmen to fly, pioneer pilot Charles ‘Chief’ Anderson

The Tuskegee Airmen soar across American military lore some 80 years after victory in World War II.

The heroic U.S. Army Air Forces pilots battled for equality at home before they battled the Nazis in the skies over Europe. 

The unit of African American pilots in the segregated Army earned their wings under the tutelage of pioneering pilot Charles A. Anderson. 

Dubbed “Chief” by his students, he was the lead flight instructor at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.

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He put the wind beneath the wings of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, only after fighting for the right to fly on his own a decade earlier.  

“His reputation was that he expected a lot out of us,” World War II veteran and retired Lt. Col. George Hardy, 98, told Fox News Digital for this article.

“He learned to fly through personal determination. That’s what we admired about him. He did a great job of running things.”

Hardy is one of three known surviving Tuskegee Airmen who flew fighter planes in World War II. He’s still a legend today; he’s gone skydiving in his 90s and taken friends parasailing on the Gulf of Mexico near his home in Sarasota, Florida

He stands among the many legendary figures to emerge from the famous unit, trained to fly and fight under a system devised and led by self-taught pilot Chief Anderson. 

Hardy flew legendary “Red Tail” P-51 Mustang fighter planes in World War II — the aircraft earning the name from the crimson rudder that denoted the 332nd Fighter Group. Americans know the 332nd and the Red Tails today as the most famous of the Tuskegee Airmen. 

Hardy later piloted giant B-29 bombers during the Korean War and C-119 gunships in Vietnam. 

He retired in 1972 after a 30-year military career.

“I had never even driven an automobile before I got to Tuskegee,” Hardy said.

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His inexperience is a testament to the challenges that Anderson faced. He took hundreds of young men and instilled in them the spirit to fly — at a time when many people thought they couldn’t do so because of the color of their skin. 

“The airplane was invented in 1903, and the military acquired its first airplanes and pilots in 1909, but Black men were not allowed to be pilots in the American military until the 1940s,” writes historian Daniel Haulman in his 2023 book, “Misconceptions About The Tuskegee Airmen.”

Anderson was not a military man. The nickname “Chief” was an accolade accorded the civilian by his Army students

“Chief Anderson was liked and highly respected by his men,” Tuskegee University archivist Dana Chandler told Fox News Digital. 

“He instilled in them a belief that they could succeed no matter the obstacles.”

Charles Alfred Anderson Sr. was born on Feb. 9, 1907, in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, to Iverson and Janie Anderson. 

Like many American boys of his era, he was thrilled by the emergence of flight and by the new image of daredevil pilots spiraling through the skies across America in the first decades of the 20th century. 

Denied opportunities to take flying lessons because he was African American, he blazed his own path into the wild blue yonder. 

Anderson saved money — and borrowed more from friends and family — to buy an airplane at age 22. 

He soon traded the use of his plane for lessons from a local pilot named Russell Thaw. He found another ally in his quest to fly — an unlikely ally. 

Ernst Buehl flew airplanes for the German army in World War I before immigrating to the United States in 1920. He took Anderson under his wing, unaware the young man would soon inspire American pilots in the Second World War. 

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Anderson earned a commercial pilot license in 1932. He’s believed to be the first African American commercial pilot in the United States. 

Freed by flight, he was soon soaring across the nation. 

Along with physician and benefactor Dr. Albert Forsythe, Anderson became the first Black pilot to crisscross the United States by air in 1933.

“The Anderson-Forsythe long-distance flights attracted worldwide attention and greatly popularized aviation in the African American community,” the African American Registry reports on its website.

“Much of their navigation on the journey was done by reading a simple roadmap. The daring pair also made a long-distance flight to Canada. They later staged an elaborate Pan American Goodwill Tour of the Caribbean in their plane, ‘The Spirit of Booker T. Washington.’”

The Tuskegee Institute hired Anderson to head its Civilian Pilot Training program in 1940.

Soon the Army was calling on Tuskegee and Anderson to head its training program for Black military pilots. 

Anderson in March 1941 unexpectedly found one of the most famous people in the world as a passenger. 

“We went out to the aviation field, where a Civil Aeronautics unit for the teaching of colored pilots is in full swing,” first lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote on April 1, 1941, in her nationally syndicated “My Day” column. 

“They have advanced training here, and some of the students went up and did acrobatic flying for us. These boys are good pilots. I had the fun of going up in one of the tiny training planes with the head instructor, and seeing this interesting countryside from the air.”

The brief encounter of flying Mrs. Roosevelt over Alabama made Anderson one of the most famous pilots in America. It also helped forge a national reputation for the Tuskegee Airmen — a reputation that would soon be steeled under fire in the skies over Europe. 

Anderson’s Tuskegee Airmen arrived in Europe in the spring of 1943. The famed 332nd Fighter Group was based in Ramatelli, Italy.  

The Tuskegee Airmen quickly proved that Black pilots were more than fit for combat. 

Their main mission was to escort Allied bombers in raids over German targets across Europe — dangerous missions flown in the face of anti-aircraft fire from the ground and attacks from enemy fighter planes in the air.

“The Tuskegee Airmen flew more than 15,000 sorties between May 1943 and June 1945,” reports the National World War II Museum.

“Bomber crews often requested to be escorted by these ‘Red Tails.'” 

Once-classified documents provided to Fox News Digital by the Air Force Historical Research Agency show the “box scores for the Red Tails” — a trail of destruction of Nazi forces left by the Tuskegee Airmen. 

The Red Tails destroyed or damaged 409 German aircraft in the air (136) or on the ground (273); 739 locomotives and other train cars damaged or destroyed; 40 barges and boats; even one enemy warship, a destroyer. 

The Tuskegee Airmen faced perhaps their most daunting challenge on March 24, 1945, escorting American bombers all the way from Italy to Berlin. It was a dangerous mission of nearly 1,000 miles each way.

The American air armada was attacked that day by German ME-262 aircraft — the world’s first jet fighters. They were faster and more maneuverable than anything in the Army Air Forces. 

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“We couldn’t keep up with them,” Hardy, the 98-year-old Tuskegee Airman, told Fox News Digital.

Still, his unit of prop planes shot down three German jet fighters that day.

One of the men on the Berlin mission, Colonel Benjamin O. Davis Jr., went on to become the first brigadier general in the U.S. Air Force (formed from the Army Air Forces in 1947). 

His father, Benjamin O. Davis Sr., had already broken down barriers as the first brigadier general in the U.S. Army. 

Despite the carnage inflicted on enemy forces, just 66 Tuskegee Airmen were lost in combat in World War II. 

“They had one of the lowest loss records of any escort fighter group,” says the National World War II Museum. 

Tuskegee’s daring fighter pilots draw all the popular acclaim today, but were only one part of the story. 

Only 992 Tuskegee Airmen flew fighter planes in World War II, yet 14,000 served — among them bomber crews, reconnaissance plane pilots, grounds crew and various other support staff, notes Tuskegee Airmen historian Haulman. 

He also said the early military reports were not completely accurate. The Red Tails actually shot down 112 German aircraft, he said, and the information about the German Navy ship being destroyed is not accurate.

Added Haulman, “Americans should remember Chief Anderson as somebody who personally demonstrated the potential of Black pilots and who was also instrumental in training the Tuskegee Airmen to fly.”

Charles Alfred “Chief” Anderson died on April 13, 1996, in Tuskegee. He was 89 years old. He’s buried in Greenwood Cemetery.

“Remaining in Tuskegee after the war, Anderson continued to provide flight instruction at Moton Field, which remains an active airport and is the location of the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site,” reports the Encyclopedia of Alabama. 

“In 1967, Anderson co-founded Negro Aviation International, an association for Black pilots.”

He joined the Alabama Aviation Hall of Fame in 1991. Moton Field, where hundreds of war pilots learned to fly under his tutelage, is now Tuskegee Moton Field Municipal Airport. 

“This historical landmark is a rich backdrop to a modern, state-of-the-art facility providing top-notch training and education, while serving as an economic engine for the region,” says the City of Tuskegee online.

Anderson lived long enough to see the story of the men he introduced to flying immortalized in the 1995 movie “The Tuskegee Airmen,” starring Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lawrence Fishburne. 

The dramatic silver screen tale brought the exploits of the Red Tail warriors to a new generation of grateful Americans. They’ve since been honored in many other depictions in books and on screen

The United States Postal Service issued a stamp in Anderson’s honor at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site in Alabama in 2014. 

Tales of the Tuskegee Airmen will be told to future generations. 

Lt. Col. Hardy recently returned from Hollywood, where he was recorded in digital detail for a pending exhibit at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

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“We worked together and we depended on each other,” said Hardy. “I listened to my instructors, I learned a lot and did the best I could. I think I was successful. The group was successful.” 

Anderson’s greatest contribution to the nation was helping prove old stereotypes wrong. 

The U.S. military was fully integrated 1948, just three years after his Tuskegee Airmen flew their final combat mission. 

The military today may provide the most accurate depiction of the American people — more diverse than the halls of Congress, more integrated than the ivory towers of academia. 

“What made the Tuskegee Airmen ultimately succeed was the ability to overcome the obstacles they faced with hard work and dedication,” LaVone Kay, spokesperson for Commemorative Air Force Rise Above, told Fox News Digital. 

Her organization is devoted to providing American children with life lessons through the example of Anderson’s Red Tail fighters of World War II.  

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“Life can be unfair,” she added. “But if children believe in themselves, stay focused and work hard, they will overcome obstacles and achieve excellence, just like the Tuskegee Airmen.”

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