Martin attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx. Upon graduation in 1938, he returned to California to attend San Mateo Junior College.
While at San Mateo, Martin’s ambitions quickly turned to flying. He worked for the Oakland Flying Service, fueling and washing airplanes to earn money for flying lessons. After junior college, he entered the federally sponsored Civilian Pilot Training Program at the University of California. His first solo flight took place in 1940, in a Fleet Model 2 airplane, and by graduation he had earned his flight instructor rating, authorizing him to teach other aviation students.
In 1942, Martin returned to New York, this time to work for the Navy V-12 College Training Program at Cornell University. The following year Martin enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps.
He was sent to Tuskegee, Ala. to train with the famed Tuskeegee Airmen, the first group of black pilots in the armed forces. He earned his Army pilot’s wings on Sept. 8, 1945. However, World War II ended before his bombardment group was scheduled to go overseas, and Martin never saw combat.
After he was honorably discharged from the Army Air Corps in 1946, Martin had great difficulty finding a pilot’s job. The commercial aviation sector was flooded with thousands of unemployed pilots looking for work following the war and it was especially difficult for African-American pilots, to whom these jobs were not yet open.
Martin worked as an aircraft maintainer at Willis Air Service in Teterboro, NJ and flew part-time for Buffalo Skylines, El Al and World Airways. To support his family when there were no flying jobs available, he loaded ships on the New York City docks.
In 1955, Martin was hired by Seaboard World Airlines and became the first African-American to captain a U.S.-scheduled commercial air carrier. Seaboard was one of the largest air cargo companies in the country at the time, and the only one to have its corporate headquarters at Kennedy International Airport, then known as Idlewild.
The airline played a notable role during the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, flying cargo jets from Washington State to the front lines. Through purchases in the 1980s Seaboard eventually became a part of what is now Federal Express.
In 1967, Martin helped to establish Negro Airmen International with Edward Gibbs, a civilian flight instructor at the Tuskeegee Airfield. NAI was the first black civilian aviation organization in the United States and today has 31 chapters across the country.
While on vacation from Seaboard in 1968, Martin, 49, volunteered to fly a mercy mission for the International Red Cross to Biafra, the eastern region of Nigeria embroiled in civil war at the time. He died in a crash while attempting to land his plane during a severe rainstorm. The plane was loaded with emergency relief supplies.
Read more in the Queens Chronicle