Pioneer Pilot Azellia White Flies West

White’s passing sends a message in building a bigger aviation “table.”

Azellia White
Azellia White used flight as a means to travel widely across the South in the late 1940s.Courtesy of Lone Star Flight Museum

She took to flying like an eagle to the sky—to her, flying the Taylorcraft in which she first took lessons was easy.

Azellia White watched her husband, Hulon “Pappy” White, fly during his service as a mechanic for the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II, and when she expressed an interest in aviation following the war, she became the first African-American woman licensed to fly in Texas in 1946.

Sky Ranch Flying Service was founded by White’s husband and two other Tuskegee Airmen, Ben Stevenson and Elton “Ray” Thomas, and they conducted post-war flight training and charter and cargo services for the African-American community. A view of the Sky Ranch Airport, southwest of downtown Houston on Reed Road, can be found on the Abandoned and Little-Known Airfields site. The field operated between 1945 and 1948, when White and his partners closed the business. Changes to the G.I. Bill at the time placed restrictions on its use for flight training for veterans—and left a gap in service for willing pilots of color, but also for vets in general. Truman signed the order to desegregate the armed forces in 1948—but it would still take decades to pick away at the overt racism still within. We still struggle with institutionalized racism within aviation’s ranks. White passed away this fall at the age of 106 after seeing her contribution recognized, but still not fully realized in a change to the percentage of women pilots, or those of color.

Though her career in aviation spanned only a few years, White’s life story gives me pause to think about what we’ve lost in those intervening decades. General aviation relies on a critical mass to stay viable—and I’ve seen first-hand in Europe what limiting those numbers does for access and cost. When barriers exist, whether real or perceived, to enticing to our ranks any person with the passion and acuity to fly, we lose out, too, on sources of innovation and expansion that we sorely need to meet future challenges.

As we approach Thanksgiving and the ongoing holiday season in the United States, a popular meme is making the rounds about setting a bigger table rather than letting differences divide us. We’ve just launched our Learn to Fly hub on Flying’s website, and an upcoming issue of the magazine will be devoted to our “Invitation to Fly.” As you give thanks this season, consider turning that gratitude into action and inviting at least one person to join our aviation table.