On Golden Wings

On Golden Wings

by Megan Klein-Hewett

James Herman Banning was born on November 5, 1899. On November 5 this year, 124 years later, we honor Banning’s amazing life and accomplishments at Ames Public Library.

By this point, you’ve hopefully heard Banning’s name. The Ames Municipal Airport was renamed the James Herman Banning Ames Municipal Airport in June of this year, and a play featuring Banning’s story was performed at the Ames/Story County Juneteenth celebration this summer. In partnership with the Ames NAACP, the library will show a recording of the play, “On Golden Wings - The Greatest Story Never Told,” in the Library’s Auditorium on November 5th at 1 pm. Enjoy a piece of birthday cake too!

You may have heard Banning’s name, and you might even know he was the first African American pilot to receive a commercial pilot’s license, but do you know his story? Banning was born in Oklahoma, and moved to Ames to attend Iowa State College, where he studied electrical engineering. He later owned and operated the J.H. Banning Auto Repair Shop from 1922 to 1928.

Banning had a passion for flight, but was denied access to multiple flight schools due to racism. He eventually found a flying instructor at Raymond Fisher’s Flying Field in Des Moines, which led him to become the first African American pilot to obtain a license from the U.S. Department of Commerce in 1926. He later moved to Los Angeles, California, where he purchased his plane which he named Miss Ames.

In 1932, Banning and Thomas Cox Allen, another Black pilot, teamed up to become the first African American pilots to fly coast to coast. Between September and October, the pair flew 3,300 miles over 21 days, landing in Long Island, New York on October 9.

Tragically, Banning died less than a year later, on February 5, 1933. While attempting to raise funds to get back to the plane on which he had flown cross-country, he died in an airshow in the hands of a pilot who was less experienced than he, but was white.

This is just a small snippet of Banning’s remarkable life, and there’s so much more to learn. Join us on November 5th to honor his story and legacy. Thanks to the Ames History Museum and the Oklahoma Historical Society for the information used in this column.