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James L. Edwards

James L. Edwards


James L. "Jim" Edwards was born in Detroit, Michigan on April 7, 1940. After graduating from Detroit Pershing High School, he joined the Air Force. Airman Edwards applied and was accepted into the Air Force Academy, however, because he chose marriage, he attended Officer Candidate School (OCS).

Edwards received his commission as a 2nd Lieutenant and completed Air Force Pilot training. He flew the F-100 and the F-101 Voodoo. During his off-duty time at various assignments, Edwards participated in university courses and earned a Bachelor of Science degree.
Due to the racist actions of some in the Air Force, Edwards felt that resigning his commission in 1964 was in the best interests of him and his family. He moved back to Detroit shortly thereafter.

That same year, he completed all of his civilian pilot ratings, including commercial instructor and multi-engine. Edwards applied to United Airlines and passed the qualifying test with flying colors. The airline was ready to hire him until they realized he was African American, at which point they suggested he get some heavy multi-engine flying time.

In 1965-1966, United hired 120 pilots with no flying experience, allowing them one year to get their certification. Edwards applied, but was turned down. In 1967, the U.S. Justice Department met with the Tuskegee Airmen, who encouraged Edwards to join in a class action lawsuit against United.

While waiting for the wheels of justice to turn, Edwards founded AERO
Services Inc., a freight transport company and flight school. He also served as plant manager for Chrysler Corp. at its Warren and Centerline facilities.

The lawsuit settled in 1976. The judge decreed that Edwards' ratings and flight experience would qualify him for United's next new pilot class. This decree also opened all jobs at United Airlines for minorities and women. To overcome another last-minute barrier, he earned an engineer's rating in only two days.

In 1976, Edwards became a founding member of the Organization of Black Airline Pilots, now the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals. He flew the 727, 757, 767, DC-10 and the 747-100, 200, and 400 for United Airlines. He retired from United in March, 2000. Edwards was elected President of the Detroit Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen in 2003, and enshrined into the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame on October 11 of the same year. He passed away December 7, 2010.

Smithsonian Institution Affiliations Program