Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 7: J. Herman Banning, The Day I Sprouted Wings (#95)

J. Herman Banning, "The Day I Sprouted Wings" (1932) in Into the Blue:
This piece was originally published in the Pittsburgh Courier, an African-American newspaper that I have looked through a bunch in my time (George Schuyler, woo!). The headnote for this piece gives a lot of helpful info for James Herman Banning, not the most well-known name in aviation history. The story is very historically interesting: first licensed black male pilot; transcontinental flight that took three weeks since they had to raise funds for fuel at every stop; died in 1933 when he couldn't get a plane in an airshow because he was black and had to go up with a less experienced white pilot.

As Bisgood's piece gave us a historical view of commercial flying (and for a woman!), Banning's piece gives us a historical view of a wannabe pilot (and a black man). The story is as interesting as his biography, with his torturous training involving a near brush with death--
This particular day the pilot complimented me on my progress up to that date, and five minutes later he took a new student up in the same ship and was killed in a crash.
--; the difficulty of getting an experienced pilot to fly the plane he built himself after salvaging the engine of the plane his instructor died in; and his eventual accidental first solo flight in the plane before anyone else tested it.

The story takes a little while to get going--or at least it feels that way since he starts with that old cliche, "It has often been said truth is stranger than fiction." But once he gets into it, it's a short little anecdote that goes along pleasantly, especially since Banning is always willing to deflate his own legend. My favorite section of this short piece does just that, describing at length how great he feels to be flying before reminding himself that he might just die:
I immediately became self-reliant. I felt as only one who flies can feel—that here, at last, I have conquered a new world, have moved into a new sphere. I had sprouted wings, a rhapsody in air, but the stark realization came to me that I had yet a landing to make!
His undercutting deflations often take place in the same sentence as the inflation, which helps to give this a breathless forward momentum without letting us build a legend out of this epic and totally accidental moment.

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