“Flying Home” is a 1944 short story by Ralph Ellison. The story was published posthumously in a collection of the same name. The story was named after a jazz composition written by Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton. A legend surrounding the song claims that Hampton improvised the melody to the song while nervously waiting to board his first flight on an airplane.
The story “Flying Home” is about Todd, a young black air force candidate in Flight Training School in Macon County, Alabama, during World War II. Todd is among the first African Americans accepted into the air force and feels a tremendous amount of pressure to perform well so that he can prove he is equal to his white counterparts.
As the story opens, Todd has crashed into the Alabama farmland during a test flight. He is incapacitated with a broken ankle but otherwise unharmed. At first, Todd is determined to stand on his own and return to his plane, but his injuries make that impossible. He soon reveals that the reason for the crash was his excitement over flying. Todd flew too high and fast, and his plane stalled out. Before he could regain control, he collided with a bird, shattering the windshield. Todd panics and crashes.
A black sharecropper, Jefferson, and his son Teddy find Todd and attempt to help him. The two represent the stereotype of a poor, uneducated black person that Todd has worked hard to defy.
Todd is preoccupied with shame and anxiety over the crash. He is worried that his white commanding officers will see the crash as support for their belief that black people cannot fly. Todd is worried that he has lost not only his own chance to be a pilot, but also cost many other black recruits their jobs. He is upset that his mistake that led to him crashing the plane will be held against all people, while a similar mistake by a white pilot would never be held against all white people.
Todd abruptly remembers a letter he received from his girlfriend back home. In it, she urges him not to feel like he must prove himself to everyone all the time. She tells Todd that she knows he is brave and intelligent, and that he must not let his eagerness to impress white people cloud his judgment. In addition, she warns him that the military may try to use him and likely has little regard for his life.
While Teddy leaves to fetch Dabny Graves, the while landowner, Jefferson attempts to distract Todd with stories. He first tells Todd about finding two buzzards inside the carcass of a dead horse. Then he shifts to a longer fantastical story in which he was once a black angel who was cast out of Heaven for shining too brightly. Todd misinterprets the stories to be about his own situation and becomes angry, thinking that Jefferson is making fun of him. He thinks that the story about a disgraced black angel who was cast to earth is meant to parallel his own situation.
As the pain in his ankle increases, Todd has an out-of-body experience in which he relives moments from his childhood. He remembers how he first became interested in planes when he was a little boy, and how he used to try to reach up and snatch them out of the sky. In addition, he remembers an event in which the KKK dropped a load of threatening, racist fliers from a plane that flew over his small town.
Todd revives from his delirium for a moment, long enough to register that Jefferson is very concerned about his state. Contrary to making fun of Todd earlier, Jefferson is deeply empathetic to Todd’s situation and worried about what will become of him. While Todd is conscious, Jefferson warns him that Dabny is a fickle man who sometimes enjoys playing with people’s feelings callously. The two have a short conversation about the unfair treatment of black people before Todd passes out again.
When he next wakes up, he sees three men coming towards him with a straitjacket. Dabny has brought the jacket, which is intended for his cousin, and attempts to put it on Todd as a joke. Todd speaks up for himself, which angers Dabny and prompts him to kick Todd in the chest.
Todd realizes that his only allies in the situation are Jefferson and Teddy. He regrets looking down on the two a moment ago, realizing that they are all equally victims of a racist society. As Jefferson and Teddy help him back to the airfield, Todd feels better about his situation. He is no longer isolated, but has found his place in society with other people like him. He finally feels at peace with his life and his decisions.