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Bert Acosta. Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-94370).

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Acosta, Bertrand Blanchard (01 January 1895–01 September 1954), aviation pioneer, was born in San Diego, California, the son of Aphonse Ferdinand Acosta and Martha Blanche Snook, businesspeople. Acosta became enthralled with aviation at an early age, built gliders and later powered aircraft, and taught himself to fly. Because of this interest, at age sixteen his parents enrolled him in Throop Polytechnic Institute (later the California Institute of Technology) in Pasadena so that he could study aeronautical engineering, but he never graduated. Beginning in 1911 Acosta spent almost every moment not in school working for ...

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Allen, Edmund Turney (04 January 1896–18 February 1943), test pilot, was born in Chicago, Illinois, the son of Edmund Allen, a preacher, and Abby Irene Dyer. A shy, frail-looking person, “Eddie” Allen moved around with his family before returning to Chicago, where he graduated from high school in 1913. He was initially drawn to farm work, but his mother and sister convinced him to attend the University of Illinois, which he did in 1916–1917. He then enlisted in the infantry before attending officers’ training camp at Fort Sheridan, Illinois, where he became interested in aviation....

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Armstrong, Neil (05 August 1930–25 August 2012), aerospace engineer, test pilot, and astronaut, was born Neil Alden Armstrong in Auglaize County, Ohio, the first of three children of Stephen Koenig Armstrong and Viola Engel. His father, an auditor with a state agency, moved the family fourteen times before finally settling in Wapakoneta in 1944. Neil was a good student, a voracious reader who skipped a grade in elementary school; he won a freshman science award and represented his school in a state-wide civics program. He was also an Eagle Scout, played in the Blume High School band and orchestra, served as vice president of the student council in his senior year, and graduated at age sixteen....

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Barnes, Pancho (22 July 1901–29 March 1975), airwoman, was born Florence Leontine Lowe in San Marino, California, the daughter of Thaddeus Lowe, Jr., and Florence Mae Dobbins. The uninhibited character of Barnes’s adult life contrasts sharply with the conventionality of her background and upbringing. Born into a wealthy California family and educated at several private and convent schools, she was married at the age of nineteen to the Anglican vicar of Pasadena, C. Rankin Barnes, in 1921, giving birth to her only child, William, the same year. The marriage was not successful and the couple quickly separated, although they did not divorce until 1941. The death of her mother in 1924 made Barnes financially independent, enabling her to embark upon a life of adventure. Capitalizing upon her childhood training as a horsewoman, she obtained work as a double for several Hollywood actors in horseback scenes, as well as providing occasional screenwriting assistance to her childhood friend ...

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Boyd, John R. (23 January 1927–09 March 1997), air force officer, was born John Richard Boyd in Erie, Pennsylvania, the son of Hubert Boyd, a paper mill official, and Elsie Mae Beyer. When Boyd was three, his father died and his mother became a telephone-advertising salesperson. At Strong Vincent High School in Erie, Boyd was an honor student and a member of the swimming team. He received his diploma in absentia in 1945 because he was serving in the U.S. Army Air Forces. During his tour of duty in Japan (1945–1946), Boyd criticized the bivouacking of enlisted men in freezing tents and giving them cold K rations while officers enjoyed warm quarters and hot food. When Boyd and others dismantled and burned a wooden hangar for warmth, he was threatened with court-martial; but he ultimately helped to implement reform measures. His stubborn maverick personality was forming....

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Janet Bragg. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution (79-13664).

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Bragg, Janet (24 March 1907–11 April 1993), aviator, nurse, and nursing home proprietor, was born Janet Harmon in Griffin, Georgia, the daughter of Cordia Batts Harmon and Samuel Harmon, a brick contractor. The Batts family had long been established in Griffin. Bragg's maternal grandfather was a freed slave of Spanish descent, and her maternal grandmother was a Cherokee. Bragg's grandfather had built the house in which she and her siblings were born; her mother had been born in the same house. Bragg, the youngest of seven children, had a happy childhood, enjoying sports and games and excelling at school. In an interview conducted at the University of Arizona as part of a project called African Americans in Aviation in Arizona, Bragg reminisced: “We were a very happy family. We were not a rich family, only rich in love.”...

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Willa Brown. Shown wearing a padded flight suit. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution (90-13119).

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Brown, Willa (22 January 1906–18 July 1992), pilot and aviation educator, was born Willa Beatrice Brown in Glasgow, Kentucky, the only daughter of Hallie Mae Carpenter Brown and Eric B. Brown, a farm owner. After 1910 the family, as part of the internal migration of African Americans from the rural South to northern cities, moved to Terre Haute, Indiana, hoping for greater opportunities in employment and education. There her father worked in a creosote factory; he was also pastor of the Holy Triumphant Church in 1920 and the Free Church of God in 1929....