First Black Pan Am Pilot Reflects on Career, Time at Pitt

Perry Jones in a red armchair in a dark blue suit with a white shirt and blue striped tie.What Perry Jones (ENGR ’59) refers to as “just a little bump in the road” might look like an insurmountable roadblock to most people, but maybe that’s because most people did not have a grandfather like his.

Jones was born in rural Virginia in 1934. When he was young, his parents moved north to find work and Jones remained on the farm with his grandparents. At the age of six, Jones 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,’” Jones 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.”

Twenty-five years later, Jones was an Air Force pilot, flying a Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker over Vietnam. But not without a few “little bumps” along the way.

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

A black and white photo of Perry Jones and his track team while he was at Pitt.“I went to bed every night thinking, ‘What can I do tomorrow to get me closer to my dream?’” remembered Jones. He made model airplanes and modified them to enhance their performance. When he wasn’t studying or making models, Jones was running for his school’s track team. 

Soon, scholarship offers began to roll in from universities throughout the Northeast—including from Pitt. “I chose Pitt because I wanted to go to a school where I could win,” said Jones, who was the first in his family to attend college. “We never lost a two-mile relay while I was at Pitt.”

Jones majored in engineering, reasoning that he should know how to build planes if he planned to fly them. He joined the Air Force ROTC to get another step closer to his dream.

Upon graduation in 1959, Jones was granted a deferment from the military and began working as an engineer for Lockheed in California. The deferment was short. In 1962, he landed in flight school in Texas, along with 239 other potential pilots. 

One day in training, an instructor told the class they needed volunteers to be navigators. Of course, no one raised a hand, Jones recalled. They all wanted to fly the planes, not just ride in them watching the radar and plotting the course.

“So they said they would draw names from a hat,” Jones recalled. “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,” Jones said. “I’m only telling you so you can see how things were back then.”

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. That’s something my grandfather instilled in me.

Perry Jones

A few months later, Jones completed a “random act of kindness” for a stranger on base who then introduced him to the commander of the air wing, who in turn got Jones 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,” Jones said. “That’s something my grandfather instilled in me.”

He served as an Air Force pilot in Vietnam and decided to pursue a career as a commercial airline pilot after his discharge in 1965. 

At that time—not long after a 1963 United States Supreme Court decision forced commercial carriers to change their discriminatory hiring practices—there were still few Black airline pilots. 

Nevertheless, Jones applied at Pan American World Airways and became a pioneer as the prestigious carrier’s first Black pilot. Throughout his career, he supported others in the field as an active member of the Organization of Black Airline Pilots.

Now retired, Perry is a grandfather and great-grandfather who continues to encourage the younger generations. 

“I wish that everyone could have a grandfather like mine,” said Jones, who shares his story with classes of high school and University of Pittsburgh students and supports Pitt financially.

“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.”

This story is adapted from a Philanthropy and Alumni Engagement feature.