African Americans have made, and continue make, signficant contributions to aviation and aerospace exploration. Aviation is a leading global industry because there were people who never let oppression and discouragement get in the way of true innovation. Now that’s heroism.
Aviation is built on wonder. If not for those who dared to dream beyond the norm, would humankind have ever taken flight? Perhaps not. The world as we know it would certainly be less interesting. As we celebrate Black History Month, read on for some stories of incredible African Americans who led the way for us all to take to the skies.
You can’t make a list of prominent African American figures in aviation and aerospace without mentioning Bessie. Born in Atlanta, Texas, she was the first female born of African American (and Native-American!) descent to earn a pilot’s license in 1921.
Bessie Coleman in 1923
While growing up, there were no flight training opportunities for people of color or women. Bessie took matters into her own hands. She saved up funds and traveled to France to enroll in flight school. Coleman learned to fly in a Nieuport 564 biplane. After honing her craft and skills as a pilot, she returned to America.
Upon her return, Coleman became a considerable celebrity, capturing the attention of the media. To make a living, she turned to stunt flying. After traveling back to Europe to train in exhibition flying, she launched her career in the United States.
Coleman championed her dream of aviation while standing up against racism. Her goal was to start a school for African American fliers. She remained true to herself and defended others. She refused to participate in any events that banned African Americans from attending.
Like so many aviation pioneers, Queen Bess, as she was known, passed away doing what she loved. In 1926, during a test run of her recently purchased Curtiss JN-4, Coleman took flight for the last time. In such a short time, Bessie Coleman inspired generations to come with her positivity and willingness to stand up for her beliefs. While she was unable to start a flight school before her untimely death, she has received much recognition posthumously and was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2006.
Eugene Jacques Bullard
The seventh of ten children, Eugene Bullard was born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1895. While just a teenager, he stowed away on Marta Russ, a German freighter, to escape from racial discrimination, after he saw his father nearly lynched. Eventually, he made his way to France and fought as a boxer and worked in a music hall in Paris.
Bullard in his uniform as a Caporal
World War I broke out in 1914, and Bullard enlisted in October. He saw combat in many different places and took part in the fighting on the Somme, Champagne, and Verdun. He was severely wounded on March 5, 1916, in the Battle of Verdun. During his time as an infantryman with immeasurable courage, he was nicknamed the “Black Swallow of Death.” After recovering from injuries sustained in Verdun, he began his journey in aviation.
After training in numerous locations, he joined the Lafayette Flying Corps in 1916. Eugene Bullard earned his pilot’s license in May of 1917 and was promoted to corporal in June of the same year. He took part in over twenty combat missions before being discharged in 1919.
Bullard’s service in the military aviation field paved the way for integration in the American military. He was one of the few black combat pilots during World War I and is credited as the first African American military pilot. As legends go, he allegedly painted a bleeding heart on the fuselage of his airplane, and below it wrote, “Tout le Sang qui coule est rouge!” or “All blood runs red!”
Bullard received 15 decorations from the government of France. He was even chosen to take part in rekindling the everlasting flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier! Eventually, he became a notable nightclub owner in France. He made friends with prominent African American musicians and writers, such as Louis Armstrong and Langston Hughes.
Eventually, Eugene volunteered and served with the 51st Infantry Regiment in defending Orléans in 1940 during the German invasion of France in World War II. He was wounded and then returned to the United States to settle in Harlem, New York. He worked odd jobs before passing away in 1961.
Eugene Bullard was posthumously inducted into the inaugural class of the Georgia Aviation Hall of Fame and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force. On what would have been Bullard’s 125th birthday, a bronze statue was erected of Eugene in Georgia.
Cornelius Robinson Coffey
Cornelius Coffey, an African-American aviator and engineer, was a prominent figure in the field of aviation. Born in 1903 in Newport, Arkansas, months before the Wright Brother’s initial flight, he was the first African American certified aircraft mechanic in the United States.
Cornelius Coffey, one of our aviation heroes
His love of aviation started when he took his first airplane ride at thirteen. He enrolled in a trade school to study automobile mechanics in 1925, but still had that burning passion for aviation. Commercial flying schools would not accept him due to his race. Instead, he learned to fly with his friend John Robinson in a vacant storefront by building a one-seat aircraft powered by a motorcycle engine.
The two established the Challenger’s Air Pilot’s Association to support their attempts to enroll in aviation programs. Eventually, Coffey and Robinson enrolled in the Curtis-Wright School of Aeronautics in 1929 after filing a discrimination lawsuit against the school to be admitted. Coffey and Robinson began the aviation mechanic training course and were among the school’s top graduates.
Upon graduation, Cornelius became the first African American certified aircraft mechanic in the United States in 1932, and later that year became the first African-American to hold both a pilot’s license and mechanic’s license.
In 1938, Coffey established the first African-American-owned and certified flight school. The Coffey School of Aeronautics was located at Harlem Airport in Oaklawn, Illinois. From 1938 to 1945, more than 1,500 black students went through the school; some of those students eventually formed the original Tuskegee Airmen.
During his journey in aviation maintenance, he served as an instructor at the Lewis School of Aeronautics and Dunbar Vocational High School, training some of the first African-American aircraft mechanics hired by commercial airlines.
In 1980, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) created the “Coffey Fix,” a waypoint located on the VICTOR 7 airway over Lake Calumet. He was the first African American to have an aerial navigation named after him. It continues to provide electronic course guidance to Chicago Midway Airport Runway 31 Left.
Additionally, he was honored with an honorary day by the City of Chicago on July 22, 1980, and was inducted into the Illinois Aviation Hall of Fame in 1984
In his honor, Cornelius R. Coffey Aviation Education Foundation was established at the American Airlines Maintenance Academy in Chicago to help train new generations interested in aviation maintenance. Cornelius Coffey passed away at the age of 91 in 1994. His legacy continues to encourage and support people of color in the aviation field and beyond.
Celebrating Prominent African-American Figures in Aviation
Every February marks the celebration of Black History Month in America. As we reflect on these African American trailblazers in the field of aviation, we cannot look over the vital contributions they made to aviation and history at large. To overcome systematic obstacles is nothing short of amazing.
Their accomplishments echo the professionalism and wonder of the aviation industry. Without Bessie Coleman, Eugene Bullard, Cornelius Coffey, and countless other African-Americans like them, aviation would not be the same. We can only hope to encourage and train students with the same fearlessness and unwavering motivation that these prominent figures instilled in generations after them. The collective pursuit of a more promising tomorrow is what makes us soar.