First Black Pan Am Pilot Says He Owes A Lot to Pitt

First Black Pan Am Pilot Says He Owes A Lot to Pitt

What Perry Jones (ENGR ’59) refers to as “just a little bump in the road” would look like an insurmountable roadblock to most of us, but maybe that’s because most of us did not have a grandfather like Perry’s.

Perry was born in rural Virginia in 1934. When he was young, his parents moved north to find work and Perry remained on the farm with his grandparents. At the age of six, Perry was working in the field with his grandfather when an airplane flew overhead. 

“The pilot waved and I waved back. I was so excited that I told my grandfather, ‘That’s what I want to do when I grow up,’” Perry said. “He put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘If that’s what you want to do, you can do it.’ And I believed him because I believed everything my grandfather told me.”

Jump forward 25 years and Perry would be piloting a Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker over Vietnam. But there were a few “little bumps” along the way.

When he was 10, Perry’s parents finally had enough stability to bring their son up to Montclair, New Jersey, where he continued to dream about flying.

“I went to bed every night thinking, ‘What can I do tomorrow to get me closer to my dream?’” remembered Perry. That included making model airplanes and then adding his own modifications to enhance their performance. When he wasn’t studying or making models, Perry was running for the track team. Soon, scholarship offers began to roll in from universities throughout the Northeast.

“I chose Pitt because I wanted to go to a school where I could win,” said Perry who became the first in his family to attend college. “We never lost a two-mile relay while I was at Pitt.”

Perry chose engineering as his major thinking he should know how to build planes if he was going to fly them. He also joined the Air Force ROTC to get another step closer to his dream.

I went to bed every night thinking, ‘What can I do tomorrow to get me closer to my dream?'
–Perry Jones

Upon graduation, Perry was granted a deferment from the military and began working as an engineer for Lockheed in California. After a few months, the Air Force told him the deferment was over and it was time to report for duty. He was placed in flight school along with 239 other potential pilots. Part way though the training, an instructor told the class they needed volunteers to be navigators. Of course, no one raised a hand. They all wanted to fly the planes, not just ride in them, watch the radar, and plot a course.

“So they said they would draw names from a hat,” Perry said. “There were 10 blacks in that class and wouldn’t you know it, nine of us were shipped off to navigator school.”

“It was just a little bump in the road,” Perry said. “I’m only telling you so you can see how things were back then.”

Perry took this in stride and continued his good work. A few months later, Perry completed a “random act of kindness” for a stranger on the base who then introduced him to the commander of the air wing; the commander was able to get Perry back into pilot training.

“I knew I had to be the best in the class and as I tell kids today, once you have the mindset to achieve, no one can stop you,” Perry said. “That’s something my grandfather instilled in me.”

Perry went on to have a stellar tenure in the Air Force. Upon being discharged in 1965, he decided to pursue a career as a commercial airline pilot. Until a 1963 United States Supreme Court decision forced airlines to change their discriminatory hiring practices, there were no black pilots flying for any commercial carrier and in 1965 there were still very few African American pilots in the commercial ranks. Perry applied at Pan American World Airways and became a pioneer in the field by being the first black pilot for the prestigious carrier.

In this 1956 yearbook photo, Perry Jones (back row third from right) poses with several of his Pitt Track and Cross Country teammates.

Before retirement, Perry was active in the Organization of Black Airline Pilots but says he and the others of his generation have passed the torch to the younger pilots. Supporting the next generation is something Perry does in every aspect of his life.

“I wish that everyone could have a grandfather like mine,” said Perry who speaks to high school and University of Pittsburgh students. “All it takes is one word of encouragement to make a difference in the life of a child, whether it’s from a grandfather or someone else. We are all obligated to help the next generation succeed.”

It’s no surprise that Perry has also been giving back to Pitt financially for three decades, including more than 20 years at the Chancellor’s Circle level.

“My feeling has always been that the University gave me a lot and I must pay it back,” Perry said. “I might not be able to give millions of dollars to the University but every little bit counts.”

And as for flying, Perry doesn’t do much of that anymore. However, he does still rent a plane from time to time to introduce his grandchildren and great-grandchildren to flight.