BRIDGEPORT — Katherine Johnson and Col. George “Spanky” Roberts have been inducted into the West Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame, bringing the total of honorees to 11.
The ceremony to honor them took place in early August during the 15th annual West Virginia Aviation Conference in Snowshoe. The individuals overcame adversity and hardship to contribute to the furtherance of aviation and the exploration of space.
The West Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame, located at the North Central West Virginia Airport, recognizes pioneers and leaders within the industry who have made significant contributions to the development, advancement or promotion of aviation and have close ties to the state. Nominations may be made by any firm, organization or individual familiar with the nominee’s achievements. The nominee’s service of achievements may have been accomplished worldwide, nationally or in the state of West Virginia.
Two categories of inductees may be honored, aviation industry and honorary. The aviation industry category is reserved for inductees involved in piloting, aircraft maintenance, aircraft design or manufacturing and aviation education and training activities. The honorary category honors those in aviation engineering, management and sales, and the promotion of aviation activities through financial means. To date, there have been five inductees selected in 2014, two in 2015 and another two in 2016.
“On behalf of the West Virginia Airport Manager’s Association, together with the Aviation Hall of Fame committee, it’s an honor to recognize these two individuals for their outstanding contributions to the aviation industry,” President Jerry Brienza said. “We are privileged to have been able to work with their families to honor their achievements and proud to call them West Virginians.”
Johnson, born in White Sulphur Springs, became the first African-American woman to desegregate the graduate program at West Virginia University at the age of 18, after which she applied her mathematical skills becoming a “computer” for the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NASA today).
Her accuracy and brilliance in complex mathematical concepts earned her an unprecedented seat among the engineers of the all-male flight research team— unheard of at that time. She went on to become a valued member of the Langley Space Task Group credited with calculating the trajectories, launch windows and emergency back-up return paths for Project Mercury’s 1961 launch and the 1962 first American manned orbit of the earth. Her awards include not only the distinguished Presidential Medal of Freedom, but also a 40,000-square-foot building at Langley named in her honor. Her contributions were so significant, her role was portrayed in film in the movie, “Hidden Figures.”
Roberts, born in London, was one of the first class of cadets to complete training at the Tuskegee Institute. He successfully finished and was later commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1942 before becoming commander of the 99th Pursuit Squadron, making him the first African-American commander; one of three times in total he would hold this title during his career. Roberts would fly approximately 100 combat missions during World War II before resuming command of the 332nd Fighter Group in 1945.
In 1950, Roberts was the first African-American commander of a racially integrated Air Force unit, and he became a jet-qualified pilot before assisting in the Korean War. His talents extended beyond flying, as evident by his appointment as the director of material for the 313th Air Division in Okinawa, Japan as well as his time serving as the Air Force Logistics Command in 1963. He also served as deputy director of logistics for fighter operations in Vietnam and space missiles and logistics in the Pacific Ocean area.
His awards and accolades are vast and include the Distinguished Flying Cross, an Air Medal, seven commendation medals and two Presidential unit citations. His family and close friend were in attendance during the induction ceremony having traveled from California.
“We are thrilled to be able to display the accomplishments of these two extraordinary individuals in our terminal,” said Rick Rock, North Central West Virginia Airport director. “The public will be able to learn more about these fantastic West Virginians and honor their memory with us.”
For more information on the West Virginia Aviation Hall of Fame or a complete list of previous inductees, visit wvama.org.