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Eleanor Roosevelt's Flight With The First Black Aviators

Eleanor Roosevelt and pilot C. Alfred "Chief" Anderson, primary flight instructor at the Tuskegee Institute, 1941. Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution hide caption

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Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution

Seventy years ago, in March of 1941, first lady Eleanor Roosevelt hopped in the back of pilot C. Alfred "Chief" Anderson's plane at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama and went for a flight. OK, it wasn't quite that casual; the event was actually a pretty big deal — because Anderson was black.

A group of recruits for the 99th Pursuit Squadron reports to Captain Benjamin O. Davis Jr., commandant of cadets at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama, September 1941. Courtesy of National Records and Archives Pictures of African Americans During World War II via Smithsonian Institution hide caption

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Courtesy of National Records and Archives Pictures of African Americans During World War II via Smithsonian Institution

The first lady's visit marked the initiation of the U.S. Army's African-American pilot program and the activation of the first all-African American military aviation unit: the 99th Pursuit Squadron. Later named the Fighter Squadron, it became the first squadron of black pilots to fight in World War II in the skies over Pantelleria, an island near Sicily, on June 2, 1943.

During World War II, long and dangerous missions often meant that fighters returned to their bases with only enough fuel in their airplanes to fly for three minutes. Pilots of the 15th Army Air Force Squadron formed "The Three Minute Egg Club." Membership was limited to pilots who landed within these narrow margins. Circa 1944. Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration via Smithsonian Institution hide caption

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Courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration via Smithsonian Institution

A 99th Fighter Squadron pilot studies his map before going out on a mission during World War II, 1943. Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution hide caption

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Courtesy of Smithsonian Institution

Black women in the United States Army Nurse Corps were assigned to Tuskegee Army Air Field Hospital to assist pilots and cadets with physical and psychological problems. Part of their training included ground school instruction, but they never flew during World War II. Circa 1943. Courtesy of Air Force Historical Research Agency via Smithsonian Institution hide caption

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Courtesy of Air Force Historical Research Agency via Smithsonian Institution

These historic images are part of the Smithsonian Institution's collection and are on display at the National Air and Space Museum as part of the exhibit Black Wings: African American Pioneer Aviators.