Sunday, February 03, 2013

Retired African-American airline captain a ‘pioneer’: Bill Wilkerson was among first group of blacks to fly commercial planes

Retired Piedmont Airlines and US Air Capt. Bill Wilkerson, center, sits on Black History Month panel Friday, February 2, 2013 at the Garner Performing Arts Center. Wilkerson became one of the first black pilot hired by Piedmont Airlines in 1974.

When Bill Wilkerson does historical re-enactments, he wears the uniform of an airline captain. 

It’s a role he knows well. He was the real thing.

One of the earliest African-American commercial pilots, he flew 15 years for the old Winston-Salem-based Piedmont Airlines and stayed on after the company merged in 1989 with what is now US Airways.

Wilkerson, 66, retired in 2006. A resident of Pleasant Garden, a small town near Greensboro, he works part time with the Federal Aviation Administration and the N.C. Department of Transportation on pilot safety issues. He also volunteers at the N.C. Transportation Museum in Spencer, doing aviation programs dressed as a captain.

“He talks about his personal experiences in aviation,” said museum historian Walter Turner. “He was the third African-American pilot hired by Piedmont Airlines. He proved himself. He was talented, had a great personality and won people over. It was a major step forward. I see him as a pioneer.”

Wilkerson shares stories of a life in aviation – from childhood days in a segregated society to becoming a commercial pilot responsible for thousands of lives.

Growing up in a housing project in Knoxville, Tenn., Wilkerson read everything he could find. His single mother, who did domestic work, supplied books given to her by employers.

She also bought books for her three children – and one day gave them a reference volume titled “The Library of Universal Knowledge.”

A chapter on “How to Fly” fascinated the 9-year-old.

“My brother and I built a cockpit in a stand-up model radio and pretended to fly,” he said. “We picked the destinations from Readers Digest and National Geographic. We flew around the world.”

‘Dream come true’

Model airplanes became a passion. As the craft cruised about, Wilkerson imagined himself in a real cockpit.

It was an image that only grew stronger over time.

For a seventh-grade assignment, Wilkerson had to pick a career and write a paper about it. His choice: airline pilot.

How to get there was the big question. In high school, Wilkerson was still flying model planes, but had yet to take his first flight.

He’d wanted to start flying lessons, but his mother said no.

“She thought flying was dangerous,” Wilkerson said. “And expensive.”

One day he and a friend went to Knoxville’s municipal airport and paid $5 each for a 15-minute ride in a Cessna 150.

When the plane cranked up it shook so much “I was on the verge of saying – ‘Here, take my five bucks back,’ ” Wilkerson recalled. “It was kind of nerve-wracking at first. But once we took off – that’s all it took. It was amazing. I was smitten. At that point, there was no turning back.”

His mother finally gave in and at age 16 he started flight lessons. By age 21, he’d earned a pilot’s license.

A hitch in the Air Force allowed Wilkerson to work on planes as a mechanic and to build up flight time in a military flying club.

“I couldn’t have wished for a better situation,” he said.

His goal was to gain experience toward applying for a job at an airline.

Wilkerson got out of the Air Force in 1971 and became a flight instructor in Norman, Okla., and later Knoxville.

In 1974, he got the job with Piedmont.

“It was like a dream come true,” he said. “They taught me how to fly their planes. It was a great job.”

Wilkerson piloted a turbo prop plane that cruised 200 mph at 8,000 feet.

Piedmont was a small outfit with a low-altitude fleet that some folks called “puddle jumpers.”

“People would ask when you were going to work for Delta or Eastern Airlines,” Wilkerson said.

He paid no attention; Piedmont was where he wanted to be.

At the time, a black pilot stood out. Wilkerson noticed passengers glancing his way.

“Obviously, I got a lot of attention initially,” he said. “But in aviation the endeavor is greater than the individual. If you can do the job well, it’s always welcome. You had to depend on each other. You were judged on your ability.”

Wilkerson’s first flight with Piedmont was a nonstop hop from Atlanta to Tri-Cities, Tenn. Along the way, he thought about how far he’d come – a childhood fantasy become reality.

Over the years, Wilkerson would see Piedmont expand and “diversity pop up everywhere.”

In 1980, he became only the second African-American to earn the rank of captain with the company.

“If you were a captain you were really hooting and tooting,” Wilkerson said. “You had a lot of authority. All of a sudden everything that happens is on you. You’re more noticeable. It was a special moment.”

Meeting young people

Wilkerson started his career as a commercial pilot with 3,000 miles under his belt; he ended with 17,000. From Rome and Madrid to London and Frankfurt, Germany, he’s been to places that he once knew only from National Geographic.

His wife and three children were often passengers on the flights to Europe. He appreciated the opportunity of exposing them to different cultures.

“I wanted to earn a living in aviation,” Wilkerson said. “But I was able to do lots more.”

In 2011, he was inducted into the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame.

Re-enactment programs let him be captain again. He enjoys meeting everybody, especially young people.

With stories about what he calls an “adventuresome” life, he tries to spark their imaginations and start them dreaming.

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