Julian was born in 1897 in Port of Spain, Trinidad, the son of an affluent cocoa plantation manager. He emigrated to Canada in 1914 where he claimed to have learned to pilot an aeroplane and served as a Lieutenant in the Royal Canadian Air Force.
In 1921, Julian patented the Airplane Safety Device, a combination of parachute and propeller to be fixed above an aircraft which he said would ‘prevent the machine from falling in case of engine trouble and thereby preventing resultant damage to the machine or injury to the occupants’.
In the same year, Julian emigrated to Harlem, New York, and in 1922 he flew over the parade that was part of the Universal Negro Improvement Association Convention (UNIA) and, as a result, he was appointed the head of the organisation’s new Aeronautical Department.
Julian also made his first parachute jump in the same year at an air show at Curtiss Field on Long Island and this was followed by several more jumps in 1923. During one jump in New Jersey, he played I’m Running Wild on the saxophone.
Controlling the parachute was difficult, if not impossible, in those early days and the wind blew him of course and onto the roof of a tenement.
The police charged him with disorderly conduct but the crowd that followed his progress carried him back to the UNIA’s Liberty Hall where Julian urged them to support a black-owned department store under threat from white competition.
In 1924, Julian switched his attention to flying and raised funds to buy a seaplane for a transatlantic flight from New York to Liberia. He decorated the plane in the red, black and green colours of the UNIA and named the plane Ethiopia I. Thousands of people gathered to see him depart from the Harlem River but take off was delayed when the owners of the plane claimed that he still owed them $4,000. A collection from the crowd raised the money
A collection from the crowd raised the money owed but it was to be in vain. When Julian eventually took off, one of the floatation pontoons fell off and he was forced to abort the attempt.
Julian made several more attempts to gain support for a transatlantic flight and although he wasn’t successful, it did make him something of a celebrity and in 1931 Emperor Haile Selassie invited him to Ethiopia to take part in his coronation ceremonies.
During one ceremony, Julian landed within feet of the emperor’s throne, a feat that won him Ethiopian citizenship and a position in the nation’s air force. He wasn’t quite as successful at flying, managing to crash the emperor’s favourite plane and forcing him to beat a hasty retreat back to Harlem.
In 1931, Julian became the first pilot of African descent to fly coast to coast in America and held a number of flying endurance records. He also headed a small all-black flying circus called The Five Blackbirds.
When Italy invaded Ethiopia in 1935, Julian flew to Haile Selassie’s aid and was put in command of the Imperial Ethiopian Air Force, which at the time consisted of just three planes.
In 1939, he volunteered to fly for Finland after the invasion by Russia, but didn’t participate in any military action. Then when America entered the war, he volunteered for combat training with the 99th Pursuit Squadron and is remembered as a colourful character in his non-regulation colonel’s uniform that he habitually wore.
In 1974 the then 77-year-old Julian was making plans to rescue Haile Selassie, then believed to be held prisoner by the new government of Ethiopia, but it appears to have come to nought and he died in died in New York in 1983. Below is a very short video of Julian aboard the ship Ile de France.