Stan Stokes painting of Tuskegee Airman Rusty Burns

Isham Albert “Rusty” Burns

In 1925, a study from the Army War College concluded that African Americans “lacked the ability to pilot combat aircraft” and were “inferior mentally.” The Tuskegee Airmen’s record in service would definitively prove those racist notions wrong.

Despite their myriad successes in combat, life didn’t necessarily get easier for the Tuskegee Airmen, Burns said. He recalled that at the end of the war, when U.S. troops were being transported around Germany by train, he — an officer — had to sit in the coal car while German prisoners of war were able to sit in the middle of the train with other American troops.

Tuskegee Airman and flight instructor Rusty Burns was born Isham Albert Burns, Jr. on July 24, 1925 in Charity Hospital in New Orleans, Louisiana. Burns developed his love for aviation in the fifth grade at Corpus Christi Catholic School. In 1939, he moved to Los Angles, California with his family where he studied aeronautics at Jordon High School. At age sixteen, he worked at Burbank Airport while learning about aircraft, theory of flight, navigation and meteorology. In 1942, Burns passed the federal aviation exam. After receiving his diploma in 1943, he was inducted into the United States Army at Fort MacArthur and was sent to Kessler Field in Biloxi, Mississippi. After completing basic training, he became a certified pre-aviation cadet.

Burns received his aviation training at Tuskegee Institute and Air Base where he graduated in 1944 as a single engine pilot making him one of the youngest of the Tuskegee Airmen. During his time at the Tuskegee Institute, he received twelve hours of college classes a day in addition to his training as a soldier. Burns trained on several aircrafts including the BT-13 and the AT-6. He successfully completed his training in September of 1944 and became a member of the 99th Fighter Squadron at Godman’s Field in Kentucky. Burns’ military career ended in June of 1945 as World War II ended. He returned to Los Angeles and joined the United States Postal Service where he worked for nine years.

Burns returned to aviation after buying and rebuilding his own airplane. In 1955, he opened Rusty’s Flying Service and began giving flight instruction, at Compton Airport. He became one of the only Tuskegee Airmen in Los Angeles to return to an aviation career. He trained over five hundred students before selling his business in 1971 to become an aviation consultant. He consulted for several companies in the private sector including Teledyne, Rocketdyne, Rockwell and North American Airlines. He retired in 1988 after developing a travel service program for the United States’ government.

Rusty Burns describes his aviation training at Tuskegee Institute

I would be remiss if I didn’t relate part of this journey to you, because it’s part of our history. Every airman knows the name Chehaw [Alabama], C-H-E-E-H-A-W [sic.]. When we got–when we were on the train going to Tuskegee [Alabama], there was no place there, no train station for us to go to. We didn’t go to Montgomery [Alabama] like most people did and find another way. We went to a little, small outhouse-looking building somewhere in the middle of nowhere called Chehaw. And this is where all the Tuskegee Airmen came on the train, this is where you got off the train at. So, if you say, “Chehaw” to any Tuskegee Airman, it’s going to bring a chuckle, because we’ve made jokes about Chehaw for all our time. Anyway, we went to the institute. And I believe Dr. Carver [George Washington Carver] at the time. And we were taking college classes. We were going to classes much the same as the students that were. And we got a pre-aviation cadet training. We got ten hours in a Piper Cub [Piper J-3 Cub]. You don’t solo. You just get ten hours of flight training. The instructors were all black. They were all CPT [Civilian Pilot Training] training people. And this was kind of to get an orientation or a feel for whether you had the potential for beginning a pilot or not. I don’t know that anybody failed to get through there, but you either got a recommendation for or against. And if you got one that said, “I don’t think this guy can make it,” you weren’t going very far, you know. But if you got one that said, “Oh, I think he’ll make a great pilot,” then you–the way was paved slightly for you. So, we were there, and I’m not sure I’m gonna get the timeframes exactly right, but we were there in January, but we stayed there, and I’m gonna say January and February, and then in April, May, June–January, February, March, April–no, February, March. At one point in time, they took us out of this pre-aviation cadet program and put us into the Army Air Corps Cadet Training Program, the first phase of what is preflight. And if I remember correctly, each phase was like maybe six weeks or something of that nature. You had upper and lower phases. And the phases were preflight, primary, basic and advanced, and that’s when you graduated.

These were the phases. And it was a year all together the whole program was a year. In backing up I can go December, November, October for advanced; September, August and July for basic, which sounds about right; July, June, May, April for primary. So, it was January, February, March for preflight. You go through the preflight, and then it was April, May, June for primary. Primary was done at–not the Tuskegee Air Base [Tuskegee Army Airfield; Sharpe Field, Tuskegee, Alabama]–primary was done at the institute. We had a field called Moton Field [Tuskegee, Alabama], and that’s where we did our primary in PT-17s [PT-17 Stearman]. We were fortunate in that the government had some airplanes called Fairchild 19s [Fairchild PT-19 Cornell]; Fairchild 26 [Fairchild PT-26 Cornell] (unclear). They went from the PT-17, which was a gorgeous airplane, beautiful airplane; for some reason they went to this low-wing, wide landing gear, and I think it was because of the landing characteristics of the PT-17 had a tendency to ground loop because of the narrow gear. So, they went to this low-wing airplane with the main landing gear with an inline engine to improve the potential for–to minimize a potential for accidents. It didn’t work. It wasn’t a good airplane. So, we go back to the PT-17. About the time I went to primary, they went back to the PT-17, which was–I can be most grateful for that, because it was–I just loved that airplane. It was a–it was just an airplane that, you know, the wind-in-your-hair type thing, you know; Gosport tubes, talk to the instructor; sitting in an open cockpit with that radial engine in front, you know, with the two wings; do anything you want. The airplane would just–it had no limitations.

Be sure to also listen to Rusty Burns remembers starting his own flight school, Rusty’s Flying Service!

The History Makers
Stan Stokes


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