Colonel John C. Robinson
Father of Ethiopian Airlines
By Andrew Laurence
There are many people who may claim to be the “Father of Ethiopian Airlines” but few would compare to the courageous and heroic deeds of the African American aviation pioneer Colonel John Charles Robinson, not to be confused with the other African American pilot in Ethiopia named Hubert Julian the “Black Eagle.” Recruited by Emperor Haile Selassie to lead his Royal Air Force in 1934 against an imminent fascist attack by Benito Mussolini, Col. Robinson, nick-named the “Brown Condor” stood up when the entire world failed to take action. He valiantly flew dangerous missions to transport men, supplies and the Emperor himself in the face of fierce resistance from Italian fighter pilots. Invited back to Ethiopia after Italy was ousted, Robinson brought pilots and technicians from the US to help reorganize aviation in Ethiopia and train the pilots that would serve in the Imperial Ethiopian Air Force and future commercial airlines. He also later established the successful American Institute school for elementary and secondary students in Addis Ababa. Not only was John Robinson an Ethiopian war hero but he is also considered the “Father of the Tuskegee Airmen” of WWII fame. In honor of Black History Month, we should recognize his many great achievements and consider a way to commemorate them.
Although the earliest planes and pilots in Ethiopia in the 1920’s were from Europe, led by the Frenchman Andre Maillet, by the dawn of the Italian invasion most had left never to return to Ethiopia. More publicly lauded than Robinson, was the much advertised Swedish pilot Count Gustav von Rosen, whose country supplied lots of money and resources to Ethiopia, though he only served as a captain under Col. Robinson. Some people point to the management services provided by Trans World Airlines (TWA) as the origin for Ethiopian Airlines. Actually, it was Sultan Airways, Ltd. and later East African Airlines that Robinson formed in 1946, by royal appointment of Prince Makonnen Haile Selassie, that became Ethiopian Airlines with the agreement of TWA. One of Robinson’s early recruits, Major General Abera Wolde Mariam, would become chief of the modern Imperial Ethiopian Air Force. It wasn’t until 1957 that the first Ethiopian commercial aircraft commander, Alemayehu Abebe, made his solo flight as captain on DC-3/C-47 aircraft. Ethiopian Airlines would go on to become one of the world’s most outstanding airlines held in high esteem as the pride of Ethiopia. Thanks to two well researched books that have recently come out (see sources below), Col. John Robinson’s place in Ethiopian and United States aviation history will finally receive the proper historical recognition it deserves.
Born in Carabelle, Florida in 1903, and growing up in racially segregated Gulfport Mississippi, the young John Robinson was intrigued one day when he saw his first airplane flying along the gulf coast. Any desire he had to ever be able to fly a plane would have been a fantasy at the time. Even though aviation was in its infancy and certainly not available to African Americans, John Robinson never gave up his dream of flying. After graduating from Tuskegee Institute in Alabama with an automotive engineering degree, he moved to Chicago and quickly set up an auto repair garage. Rejected from the prestigious Curtiss-Wright Aeronautical School in Chicago because of his race, he decided to pick up valuable information while working there as a part-time janitor. In no time Robinson was able to build his own plane and was immediately admitted to the school that in just two years made him an instructor.
Not satisfied, Robinson established the first Black owned and operated Department of Commerce accredited airfield, located just outside Chicago. He would go on to create three aero clubs for blacks interested in aviation and eventually a non-segregated aeronautical school, among whose graduates where the first pilots of the Chinese Air Force. With all that was going on in Chicago, Robinson travelled to Tuskegee Institute in hopes of establishing an aviation program at his alma mater. His trip ignited a spark that in just a few years Tuskegee was included in the US Army’s program to train pilots for World War II. The famous Tuskegee Airmen would go on to extraordinary success providing air escort for US bombing missions over Germany, Italy and other Axis Powers. With all these activities, Robinson had no idea how his life would turn upside down in the coming years.
It was Dr. Melaku Bayen, a relative of Emperor Haile Selassie, a Howard University graduate and the first medical doctor trained in the US, who recruited John Robinson to head up an air force on orders from the Emperor. There was a strategic effort by the Emperor to limit the number of Europeans in key positions. It would be very difficult for John Robinson to leave his wife, forgo his teaching and business interests in Chicago, and head off to Ethiopia on an improbable mission. Robinson had been reading much about the threat of fascism in the world and more recently Italy’s plans for Ethiopia. In a spirit of pan-Africanism, he accepted his assignment and after settling his affairs in Chicago, embarked for Ethiopia. Although many thousands of African Americans had signed up to fight for Ethiopia, only Robinson was able to evade the sanction against Americans fighting against a non-enemy of the US, by securing a business visa to sell airplanes.
Upon his arrival, and after accepting his commission from the Emperor as colonel of the Royal Air Force, Robinson went about refurbishing the few existing planes that he would need to use against the impending Italian attack. His ability to build a plane from the ground up impressed the Ethiopian recruits as they learned from him in all areas of aviation. In no time, Col. Robinson was called on to carry instructions, manpower, supplies and even the Emperor in hazardous conditions to front line commanders from Addis Ababa to Adwa. He was eye-witness to the numerous horrendous gas bombings carried out by the Italians on innocent civilians. Constantly chased by the Italian war planes, he often managed to escape into the clouds where Italian pilots were afraid they may run into one of the many tall mountains in Ethiopia. Robinson was took enemy fire often and was injured but was never shot down. When Italy’s overwhelming modern forces took Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, Robinson continued his fight in the US spreading the word about the atrocities committed by Italy against Ethiopia.
After Italy was expelled from Ethiopia in 1941 with the assistance of British, African and Ethiopian troops, Col. Robinson returned to Ethiopia. He brought along with him other African American technicians and pilots recruited by then Ethiopian Minister of Finance Yima Deressa and set about building the infrastructure for the future Imperial Air Force. At that time Mischa Babitchev, the half Russian, half Ethiopian director of air transport for the Ethiopian government who had served in Robinson’s air force would serve as Ambassador to Russia. With Emperor Selassie’s appointment and blessings, Robinson would replace his old friend as head of the Imperial Ethiopian Air Force regaining his former commission and rank of colonel. He proceeded to train some eighty pilots in the flight training school he opened with Prince Makonnen, many of which would go on to take positions in the civilian commercial sector. While most historical timelines for Ethiopian Airlines begin in 1947, when US aircrew and technicians from TWA were hired to operate and manage the new airline, it was Col. Robinson’s training and leadership at East African Airlines that secured a solid foundation for the future of aviation in Ethiopia.
So forgotten is the legacy of John Robinson that even after spending a decade in Ethiopian aviation, and sadly dying in Ethiopia in a plane accident on a mission to deliver blood, the grave where he is buried in Gullele Cemetery can no longer be found, nor any monument or commemoration left in the country. Emperor Selassie visited Robinson’s death bed and thanked him for all he gave to Ethiopia. At his funeral, then lieutenant, and later, Director General of the Civil Aviation Board and President of Ethiopia, Girma Wolde Giorgis gave a very moving eulogy in front of Prince Makonnen, the US ambassador, numerous pilots and other dignitaries, but today there is nothing. Why so little is ever mentioned about Robinson I will leave to the conscious of the historians. I humbly propose that a statue to Colonel John C. Robinson be commissioned and placed in a conspicuous location at the Bole International Airport in Addis Ababa. That is the very least one can do as a fitting tribute for this Ethiopian war hero and African American aviation pioneer.
(Primary Sources: The Man Called Brown Condor – The Forgotten History of an African American Fighter Pilot, Thomas E. Simmons, 2013. Father of the Tuskegee Airmen, John C. Robinson, Phillip Thomas Tucker, 2012.)