Readers today know the traditional story of how the Second World War began, when Adolf Hitler unleashed his German war machine on Poland in September 1939. What seems to have been largely forgotten, however, is the fact that the first chapter of World War II actually took place in Ethiopia: the Italo-Ethiopian War of 1935–1936. Many of the key players who defended Ethiopia against impossible odds have likewise been seemingly lost to history.
As Ethiopian Airlines celebrates its 70th anniversary, however, it feels only fitting to pull back the curtain on one such figure who not only aided Ethiopia in her fight against fascism, but who also set the very foundation for the airline itself: an American aviation visionary named John Charles Robinson.
A dream takes flight
By any measure, John C. Robinson’s life proved not only an American success story but also an Ethiopian success story. He was born in the small Florida town of Carrabelle on Nov. 26, 1905, in the segregated South. Eventually, he moved west with his mother and sister for greater economic and social opportunities, settling in the community of Gulfport, Mississippi. It was here in the heart of the Deep South that Robinson developed an early avid interest in aviation. After watching a barnstorming pilot landing in a field nearby, he began dreaming of one day soaring in the skies himself.
Thanks to his own scholarly inclinations and his nurturing family’s emphasis on the importance of education, the ambitious young man set his sights high. Robinson attended the premier black institution of higher learning at Tuskegee, Alabama, graduating from Tuskegee Institute in May 1923. He then migrated north in search of greater opportunities and to start a new life, ultimately landing in Chicago, Illinois — a primary center for black aviation.
During the late 1920s and especially in the 1930s, Robinson evolved into the dynamic leader of this center for black aviation. First and foremost, he focused his efforts on gaining entry into one of America’s leading aeronautical schools, the prestigious Curtiss-Wright Aeronautical School of Chicago. No African American had previously been allowed into this aviation institution, but Robinson found a way — overcoming insurmountable odds and barriers of prejudice. He entered the school and graduated at the top of his class in May 1931.
By now a proficient flyer, Robinson became an energetic community activist for aviation. He was a powerful advocate of the novel concept that the best way for blacks to demonstrate full equality to whites was to excel in the world’s most technically advanced field, aviation. And so he spent a great deal of his time and energies generating an interest in aviation among a new generation of African Americans, especially among the impoverished youth of Chicago’s south side, “Bronzeville.”
As a mark of his success, Robinson not only recruited but also taught the first black class (including both male and female students) at Curtiss-Wright in the fall of 1931, becoming the first African American aviation instructor in the school’s history. He thus emerged as a leading “race pioneer” in the field of aviation not only in Chicago but all across America. In time, he was destined to become “the No. 1 Flyer of His Race” in America.
To further promote black aviation, he flew in late May 1934 to his alma mater of Tuskegee Institute, hoping to convince the South’s leading black educational institution to offer aviation courses. This, Robinson hoped, would be the first step for blacks to demonstrate a comparable intellectual and technical expertise to whites in hopes of opening the doors to social, political and economic gains amid a discriminatory society. By Robinson’s calculations, Tuskegee Institute was the ideal school for learning to spread the aviation gospel to a new generation of black youth. At age 29, he succeeded in generating interest in aviation at Tuskegee, which came to full blossom through the Tuskegee Airmen fighter pilots of World War II.
Answering Emperor Selassie’s call
But Robinson was not content to just lay ambitious plans for uplifting future generations of African Americans. He wanted to achieve even more in the field of aviation, and he possessed a rather far-sighted vision. He was deeply inspired by the spirit of Pan-Africanism and closely embraced faith in the unity of all black people.
Most of all, Robinson developed a strong affinity and respect for Africa’s only independent black nation, Ethiopia. He closely identified with the increasingly precarious plight of the Ethiopian people, who now confronted the march of fascist Italy.
The crisis was severe and time was of the essence, as Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was about to strike Ethiopia with a modern army bent on conquest.
Consequently, Robinson eagerly answered Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie’s call for western aviation experts and technicians to aid his independent nation by strengthening its fledgling Imperial Ethiopian Air Force. The crisis was severe and time was of the essence, as Italian dictator Benito Mussolini was about to strike Ethiopia with a modern army bent on conquest. And so Robinson volunteered on a special mission to serve Ethiopia, at a time when the United States military provided no such opportunity for blacks to serve in the field of aviation. In this sense, Emperor Selassie was ahead of his time, and Robinson therefore embraced the opportunity to play a leading role in Ethiopia’s defense against fascist aggression.
He departed Chicago alone with high hopes in early May 1935. After a lengthy voyage, he reached the port of Djibouti, capital of then French Somaliland, from which he journeyed by rail to Addis Ababa. Here in the Ethiopian capital, Robinson gained a key mission: to fulfill Emperor Selassie’s longtime vision of an all-black air force to defend the ancient homeland.
At this time, the inexperienced Imperial Ethiopian Air Force included many white European aviation technicians and flyers who had volunteered their services. Robinson’s entry into the field, however, represented a giant step toward what the emperor envisioned for his nation’s defense: large numbers of Ethiopian pilots defending their own homeland. Through an interpreter, Robinson immediately began training young Ethiopians in the technical complexities of aviation, especially as pilots, in preparation for war.
In only a few months’ time, as Robinson’s value and leadership abilities became more obvious to the emperor, he gained the rank of colonel in command of the entire Imperial Ethiopian Air Force. At his headquarters on the capital’s outskirts, he worked overtime in training roughly 70 Ethiopian pilots and gaining additional aircraft to strengthen the air force as quickly as possible. Ultimately, Robinson doubled the number of Ethiopian aircraft to a peak of 24, and even modified some planes to drop bombs.
In addition to training, Robinson himself flew as an active pilot — running reconnaissance missions to report on the immense build-up of Italian military might along Ethiopia’s borders. And yet, as so long feared, Mussolini ultimately unleashed his air force, one of Europe’s largest, on Oct. 3, 1935. The historic town of Adowa — the scene of Ethiopia’s great victory over Italy in 1896 — was bombed into submission. Robinson himself narrowly escaped the surprise attack.
After the war’s outbreak, Robinson’s tireless efforts to strengthen Ethiopia’s air force only increased. He occasionally even flew the emperor to the front, and continued to perform repeated reconnaissance missions to keep military leaders informed of Italian troop movements. For his daring service amid Ethiopian skies, including dogfights with Italian aircraft, Robinson earned international renown as the “Brown Condor of Ethiopia.”
More importantly, in symbolic terms, he was the only American (black or white) volunteer to faithfully serve in Ethiopia’s defense from the war’s beginning to its bitter end. He described the heroic struggle of the Ethiopian people against the odds in a rare surviving letter to a friend in America: “I am trying hard to do my best in whatever mission or duty. We are having a hard fight over here with our limited amount of modern equipment, but every Ethiopian man, woman, and child is doing their part.”
And yet, despite the heroism and sacrifice of the Ethiopian people, nothing could stop Italy’s modernized war machine. With Addis Ababa about to fall by the end of April 1936, Robinson received permission from the emperor to depart the capital on one of the last trains out of the panicked city, before it was too late.
Fortunate to have escaped alive, especially after so many close calls in the air and on the ground, Robinson returned to America. Once there, he received a hero’s welcome from major black communities, stretching from New York City’s Harlem to Chicago’s Bronzeville. He resumed his favorite aviation activities at home in Chicago, but Robinson’s heart and mind were never far from the places and people he loved in Ethiopia. He therefore remained committed to fighting fascist imperial expansion, serving the United States Army Air Forces during World War II.
A dream fully realized
In April 1944, after Ethiopia was liberated by the Allies, Robinson returned to Addis Ababa as an aviation instructor with a U.S. Army Air Forces team of African Americans technicians. Once again, Robinson worked toward fulfilling Emperor Selassie’s old vision of a modern Ethiopian Air Force to meet the new challenges of the 20th century and the postwar world.
During this period, Robinson established a pilot training school sponsored by his friend Prince Makonnen Haile Selassie, the emperor’s second son. As part of the Ethiopian Air Training Program, he trained more than 80 Ethiopian aviation cadets to serve in the resurrected Imperial Ethiopian Air Force. By so doing, he also established a core foundation for the future of aviation in Ethiopia — including not only the air force but also Ethiopian Airlines.
Indeed, Robinson was a key player behind the postwar establishment of East African Airlines, then Sultan Airways, Ltd., which he organized under the direction of Prince Makonnen. Robinson trained and supervised its pilots — including Air Force veterans — while also serving as its manager. The rise of private commercial aviation in Ethiopia was heralded as far away as Chicago, with the Chicago Defender newspaper boasting of Robinson’s achievement: “Col. Robinson Launches East African Airlines.”
From this first private airline nucleus came Ethiopian Airlines, officially established on Dec. 21, 1945, as a joint aviation between the Ethiopian government and Trans World Airlines. Though historic information is a bit lacking, Robinson almost certainly had a hand in this venture, serving as a natural link between the U.S. and Ethiopia and retaining high-placed connections within the Ethiopian government.
Ethiopian Airlines launched its first commercial operations on April 8, 1946, when a Douglas C-47 Skytrain flew from Addis Ababa to Cairo, Egypt. Several international destinations quickly followed in the years to come, linking Ethiopia with the rest of the world as never before. Indeed, as the first African airline to reach the skies, Ethiopian Airlines marked a most momentous development in the history of aviation.
Today, Ethiopian Airlines is the largest airline in Africa, and it flies to more destinations than any other carrier on the continent. It remains a groundbreaking airline, adding several state-of-the-art fleet each year and presenting a model for successful business and continental progress. On Nov. 24, 2015, in fact, the very first all-female flight crew of Ethiopian women took to the skies in support of female empowerment — an achievement and milestone that almost certainly would have made John C. Robinson proud.
Though Robinson died tragically in an aircraft crash in Ababa Addis in March 1954, the men and women of Ethiopian Airlines have faithfully continued the distinguished aviation legacy he struggled so long and hard to realize during his Ethiopian odyssey. Thanks in much part to Robinson’s efforts, Ethiopia and her people can today look with great pride upon a soaring heritage — and the way forward is only further up.
Phillip Thomas Tucker is an American historian, and the author or editor of 25 books, including Father of the Tuskegee Airmen (published in 2012 by Potomac Books), a biography of John C. Robinson.