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Bessie Coleman

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February 26, 2019

The National Society of Black Physicists honors Bessie Coleman. Ms. Coleman was the first woman of African-American descent and the first of Native American descent, to hold a pilot license.

bessie colemanBessie Coleman (January 26, 1892 – April 30, 1926) was an American civil aviator. She was the first woman of African-American descent and the first of Native American descent, to hold a pilot license.

Born to a family of sharecroppers in Texas, she went into the cotton fields at a young age but also studied in a small segregated school and went on to attend one term of college at Langston University. She developed an early interest in flying, but African Americans, Native Americans, and women had no flight-school opportunities in the United States. In 1916 at the age of 24, she moved to Chicago, Illinois. In Chicago, she worked as a manicurist at the White Sox Barber Shop. There she heard some stories from pilots returning home from World War I about flying during the war. She took a second job at a chili parlor to procure money faster to become a pilot. As American flight schools of the time admitted neither women nor blacks, Robert S. Abbott, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender, encouraged her to study abroad. Coleman received financial backing from banker Jesse Binga and the Defender. Coleman took a French-language class at the Berlitz school in Chicago and then traveled to Paris on November 20, 1920 so she could earn her pilot license.

She learned to fly in a Nieuport 82 biplane with "a steering system that consisted of a vertical stick the thickness of a baseball bat in front of the pilot and a rudder bar under the pilot's feet." On June 15, 1921, Coleman became the first woman of African-American and Native American descent to earn an aviation pilot's license and the first person of African-American and Native American descent to earn an international aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. Determined to polish her skills, Coleman spent the next two months taking lessons from a French ace pilot near Paris and in September 1921 she sailed for New York. She became a media sensation when she returned to the United States.

With the age of commercial flight still a decade or more in the future, Coleman quickly realized that in order to make a living as a civilian aviator she would have to become a "barnstorming" stunt flier, and perform for paying audiences. But to succeed in this highly competitive arena, she would need advanced lessons and a more extensive repertoire. Returning to Chicago, Coleman could not find anyone willing to teach her, so in February 1922, she sailed again for Europe. She spent the next two months in France completing an advanced course in aviation, then left for the Netherlands to meet with Anthony Fokker, one of the world's most distinguished aircraft designers. She also traveled to Germany, where she visited the Fokker Corporation and received additional training from one of the company's chief pilots. She then returned to the United States to launch her career in exhibition flying.

"Queen Bess," as she was known, was a highly popular draw for the next five years. Invited to important events and often interviewed by newspapers, she was admired by both blacks and whites. She primarily flew Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" biplanes and other aircraft which had been army surplus aircraft left over from the war. She made her first appearance in an American airshow on September 3, 1922, at an event honoring veterans of the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment of World War I. Held at Curtiss Field on Long Island near New York City and sponsored by her friend Abbott and the Chicago Defender newspaper, the show billed Coleman as "the world's greatest woman flier" and featured aerial displays by eight other American ace pilots, and a jump by black parachutist Hubert Julian. Six weeks later she returned to Chicago to deliver a stunning demonstration of daredevil maneuvers—including figure eights, loops, and near-ground dips to a large and enthusiastic crowd at the Checkerboard Airdrome (now the grounds of Hines Veterans Administration Medical Center, Hines, Illinois, Loyola Hospital, Maywood, and nearby Cook County Forest Preserve).

Bessie Coleman died tragically when she was thrown from her Curtiss JN-4 (Jenny) while being piloted by her 24-year-old mechanic and publicists William D. Willis, on April 30, 1926, in Jacksonville, Florida. She was only 34-years-old.