by Jess Clackum
Herbert Carter and Mildred Hemmons had no time for dating in the early months of 1942. He was training to become a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, the nation's first military program for African-American pilots. She was the bold, daring woman who caught his eye. At 18, she'd become the first black woman in Alabama to earn a pilot's license. She had hopes of becoming a military pilot, too.
Flying was intoxicating.
On February 1, 1941, she entered history, becoming the first black woman in the state to earn her pilot's license. A month later, flying solo, she came in for a landing at Tuskegee. As she set down the plane, she saw a commotion and a throng of photographers. She was told somebody wanted to meet her. "How's flying?" asked first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who had come to the airfield to publicly support the project.
Mildred had her business degree and well over 100 hours of flying. She was named "Miss Tuskegee Army Flying School" by the airfield newsletter, and Anderson ranked her among his best pilots.
But the rejection came swiftly. "The U.S. government does not have plans at this time to include colored female pilots in the WASP."
Flying provided Herbert and Mildred a sense of freedom -- to be themselves, to dream big. The in-your-face racism of the segregated South was gone, if only for a while. In the air, the sky was literally the limit. More than anything, flight provided a rare opportunity to see each other. He'd call her up on Fridays: "Are you gonna be flying this weekend?" "Of course," she'd say.
They'd pick a time to meet. Their rendezvous point: 3,000 feet above a bridge at Lake Martin, 25 miles away. He'd be flying a repaired AT6 trainer. She'd be in a much slower Piper J-3 Cub. At the end of their aerial encounter, he'd peel away, only to circle back. He'd sneak up behind her, pull in front and leave her in a trail of airwash. Her tiny craft shook mightily. She'd come to expect it every weekend.
"It didn't faze me," she'd say. "I was the better pilot. ... I just didn't fly the fastest aircraft."
Herbert would go on to earn the rank of lieutenant colonel in a 27-year Air Force career. He remains one of the few men in U.S. history to be a fighter pilot and a squadron maintenance chief, a designation he noted with pride.
Mildred, who had once been denied admission to the WASP because she was African American was recognized as a WASP seventy years after she’d earned her license. She even received a medal noting she was one of the first women to fly for her country.
The Carter's were happily married for 69 years until Mildred passed away on October 26, 2011. Herbert followed her on November 8, 2012. Still an inspiration to many, they will forever be remembered as the "First Family" of the Tuskegee Airmen.