- Bessie Coleman was the first female African American pilot
- She was also the first black American woman to hold a pilot license
The list of outstanding aviators worldwide would not be complete without the name, Bessie Coleman. She was a pioneer female Black American aviator whose career, although short-lived, left an indelible mark in the aviation industry.
This is her story as told by WoK:
Bessie Coleman Background and Education
Bessie was born in a family of thirteen children on 26th January 1892. Only nine of the children lived past adulthood. Her parents, George and Susan Coleman, lived as sharecroppers in Waxahachie, Texas.
She would walk four miles to a segregated school in her hometown and loved reading. Aside from school, she would also help with the cotton harvest.
After completing her elementary school, she got a scholarship at Missionary Baptist Church School. Her father left in 1901 to look for better opportunities in Oklahoma but the family didn’t follow.
Bessie Coleman interest in flying
Later, she joined Langston University for one semester but had to drop out because of tuition fees.
In 1915, she moved to Chicago, Illinois to join her brothers and worked as a manicure artist. It is here that she developed a desire to fly after hearing stories of world war 1.
The young Bessie could not go to aviation school in the US since at the time there wasn’t much opportunity for women or black Americans in flying school.
She took up a second job in a chili parlor and saved enough to travel to France for her aviation training.
Bessie Coleman First Woman To Earn A Pilot License
On 15th June 1921, she became the first black woman and first self-identified Native American to earn an aviation pilot’s license and the first black person and first self-identified Native American to earn an international aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.
Upon returning to America, she became a media sensation. However, she soon realized if she were to have a future in aviation, she had to start as a stint flier.
The job here is to perform tricks to paying audiences which was something of great enjoyment at the time as planes were still a novelty. Needing more training, she couldn’t find anyone in America willing to help, so she went back to Europe.
After two months training in France, she went to the Netherlands to meet Anthony Fokker. This was followed by a visit to Fokker Corporation in Germany where she received further training.
Career In Stunt Flying
Bessie returned to America and began exhibition flying. She became a sensation and was dubbed Queen Bessie or Brave Bessie. She would always fearlessly perform and complete dangerous stunts.
At one point her plane stalled and crashed making her break a leg and three ribs. Her dream was to open a school where Black Americans could receive flying lessons.
She never attended shows that did not allow Black Americans to participate. At one point, she turned down a film role after realizing it would require her to walk with a stick and a pack on her back while wearing tattered clothes.
Later, she opened a beauty parlour to enable her to save to buy her own plane.
In April 1926, she purchased a Curtiss JN-4 in Dallas. Her publicity agent and mechanic flew the plane from Dallas and was forced to make three forced landings. When friends and relatives heard this, they urged her not to fly in the plane but she did not heed their warnings.
She was planning a parachute jump the following day and flew with the mechanic in order to view the terrain. 24-year-old Willis (the mechanic) flew the plane during take-off with Bessie on the other seat.
Ten minutes into the flight, the plane lost control and Coleman was thrown out, dropping 2,000 feet to her death. The plane eventually crashed and blew up killing Willis. Coleman was 34 at the time of her death.
Recognition and Honors
For her inspirational role in aviation, the pilot has been honored in many ways by different sets of people and organizations. People have received aviation scholarships in her honor and she has schools and streets named after her and :
- Was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2001.
- Was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2006
- Was placed number 14 on Flying’s 2013 List of the 51 Heroes of Aviation
- Wa inducted into the International Air and Space Hall of Fame at the San Diego Air and Space Museum in 2014
In 2022, American Airlines flew a commemorative flight from Dallas, Fort Worth to Phoenix. The flight was in memory of the 100th anniversary of Bessie earning her pilot licence. It was operated by an all black female crew.