Bessie Coleman: The First Female African-American to Become a Licensed Pilot

Updated on January 30, 2019
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Readmikenow enjoys writing about unique and interesting people. He likes to learn about individuals who live or have lived unusual lives.

Bessie Coleman with plane
Bessie Coleman with plane

Bessie Coleman had an interest in airplanes at a young age. During World War I, her two brothers had been in the Army and served in France. One day, one of her brothers who had served, told Bessie he knew something that French women could do that Bessie could never do in the United States. When Bessie asked him what that might be, he smiled and said: “fly.” This sparked Bessie's determination. She was going to be the first licensed black female pilot or die trying.

Early Years

On January 26, 1892, Bessie Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas. She was one of thirteen children born into a sharecropper's family. At the age of two, Bessie's family moved to Waxahachie, Texas. She stayed here until she was 23 years old. Bessie began attending school in Waxahachie at the age of six. Every day she would have to walk four miles to attend the one-room school that was segregated. During this time, she developed a love of reading and was considered an outstanding student in math. The Missionary Baptist School accepted Bessie when she was 12 years old. At the age of 13, Bessie took all the money she had saved and enrolled in the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Langston. She was able to finish one term. Bessie then ran out of money and had to return home.

Career

Bessie Coleman was 24 years old in 1916. During this time, she began living with her brother after moving to Chicago, Illinois. The only job she could get was at the White Sox Barber Shop as a manicurist. While working in the barber shop, Bessie would hear many stories about flying from pilots who had returned to Chicago after being in World War I. This inspired her to earn even more money to get her pilot's license so she took a second job at a chili parlor.

Study Abroad

During this time in the United States, American flight schools would not admit blacks or women into their programs. Bessie would speak to people about getting a pilot's license. A popular publication at the time was the Chicago Defender. It was the nation's largest African-American weekly newspaper. The publisher was Robert Abbott, and he learned of Bessie's desire to become a pilot. He advised her to go abroad to study. Doing this would require more money than Bessie had saved. She did get financial backing to go to France to become a pilot from banker Jesse Binga as well as the Chicago Defender publication.

Bessie Coleman
Bessie Coleman

Pilot Training In France

Bessie Coleman knew she would have to travel to France. She realized she would have to speak the language to be able to communicate with instructors. Bessie took a variety of French-language classes when she was in Chicago at the Berlitz school. On November 20, 1920, she left for France. With her financial backing, Bessie was able to go to Le Crotoy, France and attend the Caudron Brothers School of Aviation. It was considered one of the best pilot schools in the world. On June 15, 1921, she was given the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (F.A.I). This is an international pilot's license. She returned to the United States in September in 1921. Bessie Coleman was surprised at the amount of press coverage she received for getting a pilot's license.

Betsy Coleman pilot's license
Betsy Coleman pilot's license

Additional Training

At this time, flying as an entertainment pilot paid well. It also required skills Bessie had yet to develop. She soon returned to France for a short period of time to receive some additional training. It took two months for Bessie to complete her advanced course in aviation. When this was done, she went to the Netherlands and met with Anthony Fokker. He was considered one of the world's most brilliant aircraft designers. This made it possible for Bessie to go to Germany and visit the Fokker Corporation. Here she was able to receive even more advanced training from the chief pilots of the company. She then went back to the United States determined to have a career doing exhibition flying.

Newspaper article about Bessie Coleman getting pilot's license
Newspaper article about Bessie Coleman getting pilot's license

First Air Show

On September 3, 1922, Bessie Coleman appeared in her first air show. It took place near New York at Curtis Field. She had to borrow a plane from Glenn Curtis to participate in the show. Bessie was checked out in the Curtis JN-4 Jenny aircraft as the crowd watched. It was an event designed to honor World War I veterans from the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment. The air show promotion labeled Bessie Coleman as the greatest woman flier in the world.

Queen Bess

During the next five years, Bessie Coleman was invited to many airshows and other important events. She was often interviewed by newspapers. Bessie was a pilot who had earned the admiration of both blacks and whites. Bessie Coleman started being called Queen Bess because she was such a popular pilot who drew large crowds to air shows. She went back to Chicago to perform impressive demonstrations of daredevil maneuvers. Enthusiastic crowds would cheer loudly as she did near-ground dips, figure eights and more.

Growing Popularity

Bessie became very well-known all over the United States. She went to the southeast and gave a series of lectures at black theaters located in Georgia and Florida. During this time, she was also able to go to Orlando and open a beauty shop. Her goal was to ultimately open her own aviation school. Bessie regularly performed in exhibition flying events as well as also doing parachute jumping on an occasion. She had some rules before she would perform at an air show. The audiences had to be desegregated and all the people going to the air show would have to use the same gate.

Newspaper article about Betsy Coleman's death
Newspaper article about Betsy Coleman's death

Death

Bessie purchased a plane in Dallas. On April 30, 1926, it was flown to Jacksonville, Florida where she was staying. The pilot was William D. Willis, who was 24 years old. During the flight from Dallas, Willis had to make three forced landings because the plane's maintenance was so poor. Bessie got in the plane with Willis as the pilot. Bessie didn't put on her seat belt. She was intending to do a parachute jump for an air show and wanted to look at the terrain. After being in the air for approximately 10 minutes, the plane went into an uncontrollable dive that turned into a spin. Bessie Coleman was thrown out of the plane and died instantly when she fell over 2,000 feet. Willis could not regain control of the plane and was killed when the plane exploded upon impact. Bessie Coleman was 34 years old.

Bessie Coleman grave marker
Bessie Coleman grave marker

Burial

Several thousand mourners in Orlando attended a memorial service for Bessie Coleman. In Chicago, approximately 15,000 people attended her funeral. She was acknowledged as a little girl from Texas who dreamed of being a pilot as she picked cotton in the south. She grew up to become the first Licensed female African-American pilot in the World.

Flying School

Bessie Coleman's dream of having an African-American flying school became a reality in 1929. The Bessie Coleman Aero Club was started in Los Angeles during this year. Many of the best known African-American pilots were inspired by Bessie Coleman including the Tuskegee Airman, the Five Blackbirds, and others.

Honors

*The U.S. Postal Service issued a 32-cent stamp honoring Bessie Coleman in 1995.

*Bessie Coleman was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 2001.

*Bessie Coleman was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2006

*Bessie Coleman was ranked No. 14 on the 2013 list from Flying Magazine of the 51 Heroes of Aviation.

*Bessie Coleman was also inducted in 2014 in International Air and Space Hall Of Fame located at the San Diego Air and Space Museum.

References

Biography Magazine

https://www.biography.com/people/bessie-coleman-36928

PBS

https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/flygirls-bessie-coleman/

Encyclopedia Britannica

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Bessie-Coleman

Questions & Answers

    © 2019 Readmikenow

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      • Readmikenow profile imageAUTHOR

        Readmikenow 

        7 months ago

        Doug, thanks. Thank you for sharing that story.

      • dougwest1 profile image

        Doug West 

        7 months ago from Missouri

        Mike:

        Another great story. Unfortunately, sometimes the good die young. At bit of trivia, Bessie Coleman was one of the possible designs in 1998 for the new golden dollar coin. Even though her design didn't win the competition, maybe she will be included on future coin designs.

      • Readmikenow profile imageAUTHOR

        Readmikenow 

        7 months ago

        Dora, Thanks. She is a story of determination and success.

      • MsDora profile image

        Dora Weithers 

        7 months ago from The Caribbean

        Thanks for sharing this interesting history of Bessie's life and times. The ways she died is very unfortunate. Glad that she received the honors for her achievement.

      • Readmikenow profile imageAUTHOR

        Readmikenow 

        7 months ago

        Mary, thanks. I agree. I'm sure she has inspired many to pursue a career in aviation.

      • aesta1 profile image

        Mary Norton 

        7 months ago from Ontario, Canada

        What a story of someone pursuing a dream. It is truly admirable especially with the obstacles to women and to African Americans at that time.

      • Readmikenow profile imageAUTHOR

        Readmikenow 

        7 months ago

        Liz, thanks.

      • Eurofile profile image

        Liz Westwood 

        7 months ago from UK

        I had not heard of Bessie Coleman. How sad that her life was cut short so tragically. At the moment we have a sad story ongoing in the UK of a young soccer player lost in a plane crash.

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