“It is a delight…to feel the acceleration when you open the throttle and point it skyward.”
—Lewis Jackson, age 72, writing about an airplane he built in retirement
If Dr. Lewis A. Jackson had had his way, every American today would have an airplane sitting in the driveway.
Jackson’s love of flying inspired nearly his entire life, defining his boyhood, making possible his college education, permeating his career and securing his place in American history. He had a dream to put “an airplane in every garage,” giving all of America access to the sky he loved so much. One of his most memorable experimental designs was the 1956 Versatile I, an airplane that could drive itself to the airport like a car.
But Jackson is best known for training the Tuskegee Airmen during World War II. The year after he graduated from IWU, in a time when many Americans believed that black men didn’t have what it took to be pilots, Jackson assumed command of training for the very first group of African-American military aviators. This year, when Dr. Jackson would have been 100 years old, IWU honors the life and legacy of the alumnus whose name now graces the front of our University library.
As Director of Training for the Army Air Force 66th Flight Training Detachment in Alabama, Jackson took a team of smart, brave and dedicated volunteers, who were unwelcome at nearly any other airfield in the Armed Forces, and transformed them into one of the most formidable fighting forces in the entire war. Facing discrimination at home and a powerful enemy air force at the front, the Tuskegee Airmen kept flying for Uncle Sam despite every bigoted remark and enemy missile fired their way. They logged 1378 combat missions in World War II, destroying 112 enemy planes in the air and earning 96 Distinguished Flying Crosses.
Many of them remembered their chief trainer well: “I was spellbound every time I saw him go up in a Waco to teach or demonstrate acrobatics,” recalled Tuskegee Airman Harold Sawyer. “I always admired him. He was a wonderful instructor.”
Born on December 29, 1912, Jackson came from Angola, Indiana, where he started building model planes in grade school. When he was a teenager, he tried his hand at designing and flying his own hang gliders. At age 17, he bought a partially-completed Alco Sport Monoplane with some money he’d saved from working through school and installed a motorcycle engine. It was destroyed in a storm before he could try to fly it.
In the midst of the Great Depression, Jackson paid his own way through college by barnstorming—a type of stunt flying—at air shows in Indiana and Ohio. He also spent several years teaching in Grant County public schools; his IWU degree was a B.A. in education. After the war, he threw himself into both his passions, becoming a college professor and a flight instructor. In 1950 he earned a Ph.D. from The Ohio State University, writing a dissertation on aviation education.
Jackson’s teaching career took him from a one-room Indiana schoolhouse in 1936 to the presidency of Central State University in Ohio in 1970. He spent much the latter half of his life creating experimental aircraft, working on ideas for “roadable aircraft” like the one at right, until just a few months before his 1994 death Parkinson’s disease, at age 81.
Lewis Jackson lived during the century of the visionary: when a patent clerk named Einstein, doodling on his lunch hour, could redefine the universe; when two bicycle mechanics named Wright could build a machine that emancipated a species from the chains of gravity; and when a young Southern preacher named King could dream of the day when every man and every woman stands together as equals before God and the law. Jackson saw the nation and the world change dramatically in his lifetime, and he was a part of many of those changes.
“Lewis A. Jackson was a special individual who gave his all to fulfilling his potential,” wrote former U.S. President George H.W. Bush. “He spent his life in pursuit of ever greater knowledge, and his tremendous contributions as a pioneer in the field of aviation—including his work as an instructor, administrator, and educator—touched countless lives.”