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Bessie Coleman and her plane, 1922

The eccentric engineer: the highs and lows of Bessie Coleman, America’s first black female pilot

Image credit: Public domain c/o Wikipedia

The story of Bessie Coleman, a determined young woman who fought against the odds to become the first black female pilot in 1920s America.

To say Bessie Coleman was born into deprivation would be an understatement. Her parents were sharecroppers in late 19th-century Texas, picking cotton and taking in laundry to get by, and she was the 12th of 13 children. Bessie’s father was Native American Cherokee while her mother was African American, so almost every door to improvement was closed to them. Not that this put her off.

Despite having to walk four miles to her one-room segregated schoolhouse, Coleman finished all eight junior grades and was accepted on a scholarship at 12 to the Missionary Baptist Church school. For a non-white woman to even be still in education at 18 was almost unheard of in Texas at this date, but Coleman wished to go further. With her meagre savings, scraped together from extra laundry work, she enrolled in the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University.

However, she faced a still greater bar. After just one term, her money ran out and she was forced to leave college. Moving in with her brother, she enrolled in the Burnham’s School of Beauty Culture where she trained as a manicurist. Desperately bored by the prospect of a life in a beauty parlour, she decided on a dramatic new direction in life. She would become the first Native American and Black American female pilot. In America in the late 1910s, this was an almost impossible task. As one journalist put it: “There was no room for blackbirds in the skies over America...”

The Jim Crow segregated schools only catered for whites and almost exclusively for men. There was simply no one who would train a woman, let alone a non-white woman, to fly.

Undeterred, Coleman decided the only course of action was to move to a country where she could learn – France. With her usual determination, she enrolled in the Berlitz school in Chicago to learn French and set about raising funds for the trip. Fortunately, her plan came to the ears of Robert S Abbott, an African-American lawyer who publicised her ambitions in his newspaper, the Chicago Defender. With further help from the owner of the first privately owned African-American bank, Jesse Binga, she was able to travel to Paris in November 1920. After just over six months of training in a Nieuport 82 biplane, she became the first person of African-American and of Native American descent to be awarded an international pilot licence by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.

A media sensation on her return to New York in September 1921, Coleman soon found the only flying career open to her was barnstorming (stunt flying for public entertainment), where she would be competing with experienced ex-war pilots. With no one in America willing to teach her those advanced skills, she returned to Europe. There she met the Dutch aircraft engineer and manufacturer Anthony Fokker, who invited her to train with German pilots at his Fokker Corporation.

With training now second to none, Coleman barnstormed onto the US flying circuit in 1922 as ‘Queen Bess’, in a Curtiss JN-4 ‘Jenny’ biplane, at an event honouring the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment, the ‘Harlem Hellfighters’.

Her flamboyant style made her a huge favourite with the crowds, but barnstorming was extremely dangerous. On 22 February 1923, Coleman’s plane stalled during a manoeuvre and crashed, leaving her with a broken leg and three cracked ribs.

Without a plane, her career was on hold, particularly as she had decided by this time that her future lay in starting the first US flying school for black students. To raise funds for a new aircraft, she opened a beauty parlour in Orlando and managed to secure a role in a film. However, when she discovered the role involved her appearing in rags carrying a stick and pack on her back, she walked off set, swearing never to perpetuate such a derogatory image of her people.

With money tight, Coleman purchased an old and poorly maintained Curtis ‘Jenny’ in Dallas in 1926 which her agent and mechanic William Wills flew down to Jacksonville for her. On arrival, he announced he’d had to make three forced landings, and Coleman’s family begged her not to fly in the craft. However, she and Wills went up together. She did not wear a safety belt as she intended to make a parachute jump the next day and wanted to practise climbing over the sill.

During the flight, the plane suddenly went into a dive and spin, throwing Coleman from the cockpit at 2,000ft. She died instantly on hitting the ground. Wills was killed on impact when the plane crashed into the ground. It was later found that a maintenance wrench had been left in the cockpit and jammed the controls.

Coleman was 34 years old. Her dream of an inclusive flight school would remain just that and the first African American woman didn’t graduate from a US school until 11 years after her death. Yet she barnstormed the path: “The air is the only place free from prejudices, so I thought it my duty to risk my life to learn aviation.”

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