— By Shorefront
Fred Hutcherson, Jr., an Evanston native, was a self-taught aviator who eventually trained black military cadets at Tuskegee to fly. Hutcherson, Jr’s accomplishments include the attempt to open the first ever black-owned International Airline based in Haiti, was a Captain with S.A.M. Airlines, a pilot for British West Indies Airlines, operated a charter service, and raised money for the war effort. In ferrying bomber planes to England in WWII, he was one of the first early Black aviators to cross the Atlantic. However, in order to lend his service to his country, racial barriers led to his joining the Royal Canadian Air Force.
. . . he was meant to be in the sky.
Fred Jr. was born in Evanston, Illinois on July 6, 1912 at 1904 Asbury Avenue, the oldest of the three children, to Fred and Orain (nee Babcock) Hutcherson, Sr., who ran a business on the corner of Asbury and Emerson. While in high school, Fred Hutcherson, Sr. surprised his son, with his first airplane. “My grandfather knew that my father was always interested in aviation since early high school.” says Fred Hutcherson, III, himself an air force veteran who made a career as a photojournalist and is now retired living in Rockford, Illinois.
Fred Hutcherson, Jr. was not taught how to fly in a conventional manner. He learned through studying books on aviation, instrument panels and through trial and error in his QX Traveller at Northwest Airport just eight miles west of Evanston. He asked questions on flying techniques from other aviators at the airport. He earned the respect and trust of his fellow aviators, and his pilot’s license. By the age of 20, he and become the manager at Northwest Airport and controlled the ground school. “Everyone thought of him as a ‘natural flyer’”, Hutcherson, III said, “he was meant to be in the sky.”
At age 20, Hutcherson, Jr. was hired to manage Sky Harbor Airport, then in Northbrook, Illinois. By 1935, when he was 23, he was flying charters out of Harlem Airport, located in what is now Robbins, Illinois. On May 31, 1939, Hutcherson, Jr. received a renewed Private Pilots License #34679. Before WWII, he tried to enlist in the United States Ferry Command in Miami, Florida, but was denied because of his race.
Undaunted, Hutcherson, Jr., his wife Regina Laurent, and their five year-old son, Hutcherson, III, packed up and moved to Montreal, Canada. He joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1941. Upon graduation, he obtained the rank of Captain and began to train others pilots in bomber navigation and flight. By 1942, thirty-year-old Hutcherson, Jr. had logged in over 5,000 flying hours.
Hutcherson, Jr. transferred to the Royal Canadian Ferry Command (a division of RCAF) in Montreal, passed the difficult instrument and navigation test with the highest score and became the first Black pilot to graduate from that command. His job was to ferry military airplanes such as the Lockheed Ventura, also known as Lockheed Hudson’s, from Canada to Europe and was paid $1,000 plus bonuses a month.
“I remember him telling me that he would first land in Scotland, and then crowd in with other pilots and crew members on a plane back to Canada. While in Scotland, he also flew Spitfires down to London military air bases from time to time.” Hutcherson, III said, “He did not fly in combat.”
My father had to fly General Trujillo, president of Santa Domingo, on a classified mission.
A crew of three ferried a plane across the Atlantic Ocean. The crew consisted of a pilot, a co-pilot and a radio operator. Hutcherson first ferry, made in 8 hours and 50 minutes, was not an easy one as he relayed it in a June 26, 1943 Chicago Defender.
“We were enroute to England with our first group of bombers and were going along at a fair clip . . . Suddenly and without warning, the motor went dead, stopped cold. We were at 23,000 feet, but when engine stopped we began to do the inevitable. We started to drop . . . At slightly better than 16,000 feet the stalled motor caught up and the burst was like music to our ears.”
After his service with the Royal Canadian Air Force, Hutcherson, Jr. took a job as a Captain with British West Indian Airways based in Miami, Florida. “On one occasion,” Hutcherson, III remembers, “My father had to fly General Trujillo, president of Santa Domingo, on a classified mission.”
In 1944, he volunteered to join the United States Army Air Corps as a flying instructor in the “Tuskegee Project”, which trained Black aviators, including the famous 99th pursuit squadron, for service in WWII. Even with his flying experience, his rank was downgraded from captain to flight instructor.
While he was in Canada, the Fred Hutcherson Jr., Unit Inc. was organized. Its office was located then at 109 East 53rd Street in Chicago. The organization raised money for the war effort. It had a Sunday morning 15-minute radio program on station WIND, and had a float Chicago’s annual Bud Billiken Parade in Chicago. In 1942, their float won honorable Mention and was showcased in the Chicago Defender. On July 31, 1942, his organization sponsored a midnight benefit show at the Valencia Theatre (then at 1560 Sherman Avenue in Evanston). Hutcherson, Jr. was also a member of the OX-5 club of pioneer airmen, Illinois wing and Secretary of the Skokie Flying club.
In 1946, Perry H. Young, who had won distinction as the pilot of Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia during the Italia-Ethiopian war, and Jimmy Plinkton (both former Tuskegee Airman) partnered with Hutcherson, Jr. and started a flying school in Port-au-Prince, Haiti after a failed attempt to organize an international airport there. “My father was also a distributor for Taylorcraft, Sky Ranger and Beachcraft Bonanza airplanes, and may have been the first African American distributor for Beach Craft,” his son says.
In 1949, Hutcherson, Jr. left Haiti to train pilots and pilot planes in Columbia, South America for the newly started Sociedad Aereonautica Medellin (S.A.M. Airlines). He left Columbia in 1952 and came back to live in Evanston. “He spent his time applying for airline jobs, but couldn’t get anything.” Hutcherson, III said. He eventually got a job with Midway Airlines, flying out of Meigs Field, Wheeling, and Sky Harbor Airports.
Fred Hutcherson, Jr. started Lake Airways Charter Service in 1956 that was stationed at the former Meigs Field according to Hutcherson, III. He also flew charter services out of Midway and O’Hare Airports until about 1959. By that time, Hutcherson, Jr. has logged in more than 16,500 flying hours including over 1,500 hours of night flying.
In 1959, Hutcherson, Jr. retired from flying in order to run the family business at 1900 Asbury Avenue after his father, Fred, Sr. died. “When my father took over the business,” Hutcherson, III said, “he made it into a small mom and pop type grocery store and then into a hot dog stand known as the ‘Corner Spot’.” Hutcherson, III took over the business, when he was 23 years old.
A few years after he stopped flying, Fred Hutcherson, Jr. health began to fail. He spent three months in ECH. On his 50th birthday, Fred Hutcherson, Jr. died of Leukemia. Services were held at Ebenezer A.M.E. Church in Evanston and he was interned at Montrose Cemetery.
“I don’t remember his funeral,” his cousin Rose Jourdain said. “They had asked me to speak and I read a poem I thought was perfect for Freddie. I don’t remember the author, but the poem began, ‘I have slipped the surly bonds of earth and danced the sky on laughter silvered wing. Sunward I’ve climbed and done a thousand things you’ve never dreamed off.’ It ended ‘I reached out my hand a touched the face of God.’”
“I don’t remember the service at the graveside either.” Jourdain continued, “But just before they lowered his body into the ground, we heard this tremendous, incredible ‘BOOM’. Every one jumped and looked at the sky, and then came a sight I’ll never forget. Jets flying in formation, low in the sky, and dipping their wings almost above the casket, while one plane left the group and climbed out. I was bawling. I thought: They have returned his soul to the sky.”
On June 18, 2011, a Congressional Gold Medal replica was awarded posthumously by Illinois, 9th District Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky to Fred Hutcherson, Jr. in honor of his collective contribution to the Tuskegee Airman legacy. Receiving the Tuskegee Airmen medal is his son, Fred Hutcherson III. The event took place at the Shorefront Legacy Center and was attended by 100 family, residents and government officials. A short video can be viewed by clicking here.
Notes: Sources included the Evanston Review, The Chicago Defender, Chicago Pittsburg Courier, Los Angeles Sentinel, Chicago Airview News, memories from Gwen Buckner, Rose Jourdain and from a taped interview of son, Fred Hutcherson, III recorded by Shorefront on June 11, 2004 at his home in Rockford, IL. Photographs courtesy of Mr. Hutcherson, III. Original extended article first appeared in the printed Shorefront Journal, Vol 5, No 4, 2004.