By Crystal Burns
With the odds against in the early 1940s, Eugene May wouldn’t take no for an answer.
His persistence paid off with a flying career that spanned seven decades and landed him the prestigious Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award, which he received during a special ceremony held Aug. 4 at the Gibson Co. Airport.
May, 95, always wanted to fly airplanes.
His sister Betty Williams remembered her brother standing in the middle of a cotton field watching planes overhead. “I’m going to fly one of those one day,” he would say.
In the 1940s, May sought flying lessons at McKellar (now McKellar-Sipes Regional) Airport in Jackson, but he couldn’t find anyone willing to teach a black man to fly. He tried St. Louis but was turned away again. Finally, after May moved to Gary, Ind. he found and was accepted to the Coffey School of Aeronautics outside of Chicago.
May earned his wings in 1948.
He recalled taking one of his brothers up for the first time. As they taxied on the runway, his brother sternly said, “Keep your hands on the wheel or at least one of them.”
May laughed and said, “That’s not how airplanes work.”
The plane had just risen in the air when May’s brother said, “Take me back now.”
May’s niece Samirah Day said May’s stories of flight could fill a book.
“He truly is a man that loves his craft,” she said.
“His life is a lesson for us,” said Dr. Logan Hampton, president of Lane College. “Pursue your dreams passionately. Mr. May truly is master and captain of his own destiny.”
The Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award is the most prestigious award the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) issues to pilots certified under Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations. It recognizes individuals who have exhibited professionalism, skill and aviation expertise for at least 50 years while piloting aircraft as “master pilots.”
David Hays, FAA district safety program manager, said May’s flying records are spotless. In addition to his Master Pilot Award, Hays presented May with a “blue ribbon package,” which included all of the distinguished airman’s records including his first flying certificate dated Feb. 1, 1948.
Swift, the company that manufactured May’s 1951 Chrome Swift Global Aircraft, which May purchased in 1963, also sent memorabilia recognizing May’s 50 years in aviation. May keeps his plane at the Gibson Co. Airport, located on the Milan-Trenton Hwy. in the Moores Chapel community.
Mayce Langford, a young student with her own flight aspirations, gave May a small lighted sign proclaiming, “You’re The Man.” Langford is involved with the Memphis Blackhawks Aviation Association’s Saturday Flight School program.
While Blackhawks membership is open to all aviation and non-aviation professionals, its primary objective is to target underprivileged, urban and inner-city youth that are in desperate need of clear direction and positive role models in their lives. The organization is comprised of professionals from various backgrounds that share a common interest in aviation.
The Memphis Blackhawks and Team Memphis hosted the award ceremony with the Department of Transportation and the FAA.