Summary of an Interview with Roy Comeaux
Mr. Comeaux was interviewed by Debbi Jones, an intern in the African American History Internship Project. The theme for this year's project was "African Americans in Aviation in Arizona." Debbi also wrote this summary.
It was a typical hot Sunday, May 21, 1989 in Tucson, Arizona when I interviewed Mr. Comeaux. I met him at his office on East Copper Street around noon. He appeared healthy and active. He came across as a confident and relaxed person who expressed himself well. His office was clean and neat, and pleasantly decorated; everything seemed to be in its proper place.
Mr. Comeaux was born on June 11, 1928 in Chicago, Illinois. He grew up in a Black neighborhood called Woodlawn. He is the oldest of seven children, one brother and five sisters. He recalled that his family didn't have much while he was growing up, but they got along well and always had what they needed. He bears his father's name, and like the senior Comeaux, the son makes his living as a plasterer. His brother is also a plasterer. Mr. Comeaux's father was aware of his interest in flying and supported it but also encouraged his son to learn one of the building trades so that he would have something to fall back on in case he didn't make it in aviation. His father knew aviation was a "tough racket."
Mr. Comeaux's interest in airplanes materialized early in life. He recalls that at age six or seven his father took him to the airport where after seeing a Snits he said, "The bump cowling and wheel pants, and the pretty wings just sort of got me hooked." This event sparked a fifty years plus love affair with airplanes.
Mr. Comeaux joined a model airplane building dub at an early age. In high school he enrolled in an airplane engine mechanic's course. He temporarily gave it up when he saw other students having trouble finding jobs as apprentices. He described their plight as "a catch-22." "One needed experience to get a job, but how could one gain experience without being employed? He left school to join the Army so that he could later take advantage of the G.I. Bill educational benefits. He followed his plan. After his tour of duty in the Army he returned to Illinois and completed the mechanics course at a trade school. However, he did not use his mechanic skills on airplanes. He went to work for the Greyhound bus company, first as a mechanic, but later transferred to a section that allowed him to paint busses. He preferred the latter job because he could clean the paint off himself quicker and easier than he could the grease and he enjoyed making things look pretty: old houses, old cars, airplanes, didn't make any difference. " These were also some of the factors that caused Mr. Comeaux not to aggressively pursue a complete career in aviation.
Mr. Comeaux enlisted in the Army in 1946 for two years. While stationed in the Philippines he experienced his first plane ride with a Filipino pilot. He met some civilians who worked at Clark Field and had access to some American surplus airplanes. They were offering flying lessons "off the books," i.e., unauthorized. On weekends he would buy lessons if he had the money. At times he would send home for money from his savings so that he could take a flying lesson. After about eight to ten lessons he soloed. In looking back on that experience. Mr. Comeaux said, "I didn't think much of it at the time, but later on it seemed to be quite something to get your first solo flight, ah, ah, from a fighter ... strip in the jungle." Little did he know at the time that the first two Black American pilots (Eugene Bullard and Bessie Coleman) also had their first solo flights overseas.
After returning to Chicago in 1947 from Army service and using the G.I. Bill he acquired his private pilot's license from Johnson Flying School which was located at Harlem airport. Here he met several famous pilots, including Bill Paris who was a corporate pilot during World War II with land and sea ratings, and also a show pilot. After the war however, Mr. Paris made his living as a janitor. This fact did not encourage Mr. Comeaux to pursue flying as his sole career. Flying and building airplanes would remain a hobby for him. He went on to get a seaplane license from Smith Seaplane Base and by 1952 he had completed the training for a commercial license. It was at this time that he decided to get married. With four step-children and two added after the marriage, his flying interests were put on hold. He settled down to plastering houses for a living. He found plastering to be almost an extension of model plane building: it allowed him to express himself as he pleased. After a divorce in 1977 and with more time on his hands, Mr. Comeaux was able to return to his flying interests. He has since remarried.
One important person in the life of Mr. Comeaux was a nun who taught him in a Catholic school. She went beyond the requirements and taught students high school algebra while they were still in the eighth grade. He later realized that what he had learned by the time he finished the eighth grade was sufficient to help him pass all of his examinations: for the military, real estate license, pilot's license, or "whatever."
Mr. Comeaux recalled one flying experience that stands out in his mind. He was flying in bad weather, from Cleveland, Ohio to Urbana, Illinois; he was down to 700 feet and could only see the ground right underneath. He kept recalculating his time of arrival; the weather got so bad that he could only look for the double highway that led to the airport. He remembered not to follow the temptation of changing directions (which is what inexperienced pilots do when they are lost). He kept re-figuring his position and stayed with his course. He described the latter part of the event as follows: "I popped out of the storm ... right at the edge of the airport. If the engines had quit right then I would have gone right in and landed without making any changes." This experience taught him to "stick with your guns if ... the numbers are right, not to ... panic and change." He went on to say, "I never navigated that good when I could see where I was going."
Mr. Comeaux and his family moved to Tucson in 1973 because of an arthritic shoulder and for the warm weather. Here he joined an experimental aircraft association and took up gliding. He doesn't fly as much as he used to. He is currently a remodeling contractor. He said of his job, "We make old houses pretty." Making things look pretty is a phrase that characterizes the way Mr. Comeaux describes his profession and interests. The phrase recurred throughout the interview. He went on to say that he has no tolerance for ugly things, "If it's ugly I don't want to have anything to do with it." At one time he had an interest in military aircraft and knew quite a bit about them but lost interest once the cost exceeded one million dollars. He said, "I think war is obsolete because of the cost, if nothing else."
Mr. Comeaux is currently working on his two loves: he is remodeling a ranch house and building a J3 airplane. His goal is to finish the airplane, a project he started in the early seventies. He feels that it is important for one to finish what he or she starts. He offers the following advice to African Americans who have an interest in becoming pilots: "Stay in school, get an education, and don't duck math... Math and English (which gives you the ability to say what's on you mind) are very important, and not give up.
I feel fortunate for having had the opportunity to interview Mr. Comeaux. He is fortunate to be able to make a living at what he likes doing, making things look pretty. He wasn't born with a one-track mind. He is interested in a lot of things, and that is what makes him an interesting man. Tucson is very lucky to have Mr. Comeaux as part of its community.
Go to photographs of Roy Comeaux