Just when I thought my African American airline pilot story could not get any better, I was blessed to have a conversation with my dear friend, Charisse Chambers-Smiley, the daughter of Charlie Chambers, a “model” airline pilot.
Charisse remembers that her father “loved to fly.” His passion for flying began as a child. As he got older, his life revolved around flying – literally and figuratively. Not only was it his career; it was also his hobby. After coming home from flying assignments, he made and flew model airplanes. Family trips were planned around model airplane competitions. And, he even met his best friend at a flying field in Chicago.
In the mid-1960s, he worked as a mechanic in the Air Force. He paid for his own helicopter lessons in the Army in the late 1960s. In the 1970s, he was commissioned as an Army captain. After he became an airline pilot, he began flying helicopters in the Army Reserve.
Even with all of his passion, knowledge and experience, Charlie did not work as a commercial airline pilot until the 1970s. This could have been because of his race. Regardless of the reason, he worked as an airline mechanic at Midway Airport in Chicago just to be close to what he loved most. Changes in the airline industry opened doors for him to actually do what he loved in 1973.
Charlie’s wife, Rosemary, had heard about pilot openings at Ozark Airlines, and encouraged him to apply. Initially, he was hesitant because he had applied to several airlines previously and was rejected. He followed through, and became the first Black airline captain at Ozark Airlines. He worked there from 1973 until TWA bought the carrier in 1986. Then, he worked at TWA from 1986 until he passed away in 2000.
Not only did Charlie make his mark in Black history, he left a lasting impression in the aviation industry for his professionalism and craftsmanship. Charisse recalled a time when everyone on a flight was upset with him for not allowing his flight to be cleared for departure because airplane mechanics brought him parts that were not in a condition he felt was satisfactory. Since safety was his priority, he would not allow the plane to take off until he was certain that everything was OK.
His model airplanes were examples of his craftsmanship. Charlie was a regular contestant that frequently placed in the Top Gun model airplane contests. Because of his passion, dedication and workmanship on model airplanes, Top Gun created the Charlie Chambers Memorial Craftsmanship Award in his honor after his death.
In addition, Rosemary created a one-time scholarship for Black students who wanted to attend the aviation program at Florida Memorial College.
Although Charlie Chambers has ascended on heavenly wings, he would always be remembered as a “model” airline pilot because of his passion, professionalism and craftsmanship.