The Tuskegee Airmen Weather Unit

A member of the Tuskegee Weathermen Detachment briefs two of the pilots before takeoff at the 477th Composite Group. The hand-drawn weather maps the men completed each day were typical of 1940s meteorology.

World War II saw a breakthrough for the black community into the world of weather forecasting. Seventy years after the war, black meteorologists make up a tiny fraction of the overall profession. However, the future looks bright.

Many know about the Tuskegee Airmen, the first group of black pilots to fight for our country during World War II. But besides the plane itself, weather is the most vital component to flying. So, to help brief the crew of impending weather conditions, the Tuskegee Weather Detachment Unit was formed.

Gerald A. White Jr., the author of “Tuskegee (Weather) Airmen Black Meteorologists during World War II,” notes meteorologists around the start of World War II were few and far between. Only three American universities had a meteorology program in 1937, and they were money-losers. At the same time, though, the Army Air Corps, the predecessor to the Air Force, was blossoming as it transitioned into the Army Air Forces. Membership rose from 26,000 in 1939 to 2.4 million in 1944, a nearly 9,200 percent jump.

The increase created a demand for meteorologists. In 1940, the Army had only 62 qualified weather forecasters. The Army Air Forces would need about 10,000 forecasters and observers to stay functional.

In 1939, the Civilian Pilot Training Program was instituted to increase interest in the fledgling military air program. Programs were put in place at six historically black colleges, which included the Tuskegee Institute, according to White.

Wallace P. Reed was the first black cadet of the program. With a mathematics degree, he was commissioned as the first black weather officer in February 1942. One month later, the Tuskegee Weather Detach-ment was created in Alabama, with Reed at the helm.

After a short training program, Reed was tasked with creating and logging observations from a weather station. He had to train a staff with no weather background, working under no other officers.

The men of the Tuskegee Weather Detachment underwent the same rigorous training as their white counterparts. Math, science and map-drawing were critical, as well as the communication skills needed to effectively brief a pilot.

“Despite the turbulence and constant training required, the Weather Detachment Unit completed its mission,” White wrote. “At least thirteen (of the 14) enlisted men were awarded the AAF Weather Observer Badge, based on demonstrated performance and passing standardized tests from the Regional Control Office.”

Their accomplishments were notable and broke many barriers within the military, as well as the weather community. Still, they represented only 0.2 percent of all 6,200 meteorological cadets who graduated. The Army Air Forces as a whole included 6.2 percent black Americans.

Since the war, there has been very slow progress in the number of black Americans in the meteorological profession. However, recent years have shown potential.

The American Meteorological Society reports 1.9 percent of its members are black. The AMS, the largest professional and student meteorologist group in the country, acts as a gauge of ethnicity within the weather community, said Keith Seitter, AMS executive director.

“The percentage of African-American students in the AMS is a number comparable to those in other geosciences. Twenty years ago, the number was around 1 percent. So it has been increasing, but slower than we would ideally like,” Seitter said.

AMS by Race

In 2014, the American Meteorological Society (AMS) surveyed close to 5,000 members to receive a demographic break-down of the society.

Under Seitter’s leadership, the AMS has made strides to increase black involvement. Specific scholarships, including the AMS Minority Scholarship, have been set aside for students who are good at math and science but might not have considered meteorology as a career they would like to pursue.

In addition, Seitter has attracted more minority individuals into leadership positions.

“You see real impact from those,” Seitter said.

One of the people who has seen firsthand the benefits of the AMS is Chris Alston, global procurement manager for Kraft-Heinz.

Alston was the chairman for the Board of Private Sector Meteorologists in 2016. He is part of the soon-to-be AMS Early Career Leadership Academy.

“I am excited to be a part of the ECLA. This is having a focus on minor-ity groups,” Alston said.

Through his time as a meteorologist, Alston said he has felt the AMS to be welcoming and accepting. He knows under-representation of black Americans in the geosciences has been an issue for a while.

Seitter and Alston both feel the steps taken by the AMS now will pay dividends in the future.

“I am encouraged by the number of African-Americans at the AMS Annual Conference (the largest AMS event). The current AMS student population is 8 percent,” Seitter observed.

“I see the number increasing in the future,” Alston said.

As a mentor, Alston said he is happy to be part of the gains the AMS is making.

“If I can be a beacon of hope for others and help build the relationships, I am happy to help,” he said.

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