100 years since the FAI granted the pilot’s license to Bessie Coleman
On June 15, 1921, the FAI granted a black aviator named Bessie Coleman her pilot’s license. Coleman – the tenth of thirteen children born in Waxahachie, Texas, to a family of African American and Native American descent – became the very first person of color to earn an official FAI pilot license. Inspired by the courage of European female aviators, this intrepid young woman made a journey from Chicago to France and into the history books, inspiring generations of future pilots.
While working as a manicurist in Chicago, Bessie Coleman received a visit from her brother whose taunts encouraged her to fly: John Coleman had served in France during World War I and had pointed out to Bessie that French women were so “liberated” that they could same fly airplanes.
There was some truth in his words: France was known worldwide for its aviation pioneers. Between 1910-11, the FAI granted its first ten pilot licenses to women; all were Europeans except Harriet Quimby, the world’s first licensed American pilot. Just a few years after courageous aviators like Raymonde de Laroche, Marthe Niel, Marie Marvingt and Hélène Dutieu established their flying careers, Bessie Coleman began applying to American flight schools to learn how to fly an airplane.
Not a single school would accept an African American woman.
To make her dream come true, Bessie’s only choice – suggested Robert Abbott, the black lawyer, publisher and founder of the African-American newspaper Chicago Defender – had to travel to France. She took French lessons, began saving and looking for sponsors (including Abbott), eventually booking a crossing from the United States to Europe aboard the SS Imperator in November 1920.
After enrolling at the Chaudron flight school at Le Crotoy in the Somme, Bessie learned to fly for seven months, courageously taking the helm of the notoriously unreliable Nieuport 564 biplane. After graduating from the FAI on June 15, 1921, Bessie underwent further training to hone her skills and give her the techniques needed to perform the acrobatic stunts that would become her signature moves.
Back in the United States, the Chicago Defender The newspaper continued to sponsor Bessie as her career as one of the famous “barnstormer” pilots took off. She embarks on an airshow tour in which she will dazzle spectators with her stunts: walking on the wings of the plane or parachuting from the plane while a co-pilot takes the controls. Popularly known as “Queen Bess” or “Brave Bessie”, she became a media sensation and gained huge success from all walks of life across the country.
Dedicated to fighting racism, Coleman spent her time between shows speaking to audiences across the United States to promote aviation for people of minority background. She categorically refused to perform in shows that banned African-American visitors or demanded segregation of the audience. She dreamed of founding a flight school for young black aviators, commenting:
“The air is the only place free from prejudice.”
Stuntmen in the barnstorming era were able to purchase old military planes such as the Curtiss JN-4 “Jennies” or the DeHavilands, which were built in large numbers to train pilots during WWI. The barnstormers drew the crowds with their aerial acrobatics, including wing walking, diving, loops and skydiving – dangerous stunts, especially in often poorly maintained and unreliable planes.
By February 1923, Bessie had saved enough to buy her own plane – a Jenny. It was on this plane that she had a nose dive after an engine stall, having broken her leg and ribs and spent three months in hospital. The plane was destroyed and it took two years before she started flying regularly, although her campaign and speech events continued to be well attended as she visited the southern states.
Bessie saved up again to buy another Jenny with a 90-horsepower OX-5 engine in 1926, en route for a test flight on April 30 with her mechanic William Wills. Ten minutes after the start of the flight, the plane entered a spin and at 610m, Bessie – who was not wearing a safety harness because she wanted to see a parachute landing point – was thrown from her seat and was died on impact with the ground. The plane, with Wills still strapped inside, fell from the sky and he was also killed. It was later discovered that a loose wrench that got stuck inside the control boxes had caused the crash.
Not even five years after gaining accreditation, the remains of the world’s first licensed black female pilot were placed in a coffin and draped in an American flag, and received a military escort of six uniformed porters, veterans of the 8th African-American Infantry overseas. More than 5,000 people attended his funeral. She was only 34 years old.
A courageous woman who is unafraid to pursue her own goals and defend civil rights, Bessie Coleman’s outstanding contribution to history has garnered many tributes over the years including books, coins , stamps and films as well as street names.
Image credits: National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution