Bessie Coleman, America’s First Black Aviatrix (Woman Pilot)

A Tribute to Bessie Coleman for Black History Month

Black History Month, February 2008, my daughter-in-law asked me to suggest a notable African American woman on whom my granddaughter, Katie, might do a report for her kindergarten class.

(Bessie Coleman’s photo courtesy the Ninety-Nines Museum of Women Pilots, Oklahoma City)

I didn’t have to think twice. “Bessie Coleman.”

“Tell me more,” she said. And I did.

In 1986, a small museum opened in my home community of Centerville, Ohio, a suburb of Dayton. Because I was the editor of the local newspaper, the women behind that museum came to me for publicity about IWASM, the International Women’s Air and Space Museum.** That “encounter” changed my life.

IWASM and Joan Hrubec Were My Teachers

Four years later, I went to work for IWASM and began to learn “the story” of America’s pioneering women pilots. Having read about Amelia Earhart at age 13, I now learned about the women who preceded Amelia, and those who followed her.

My teacher was IWASM’s able administrator, Joan Hrubec. Joan was an avid pilot and a member of the Ninety-Nines, the Organization for Women Pilots. Given her vast knowledge of aviation’s pioneering American women, Joan taught me well. That I was a willing sponge didn’t hurt.

Katherine Wright, Orville and Wilbur’s sister — though never a pilot herself — became the first woman to fly in an airplane. In 1908, she flew in two exhibitions with Wilbur in France. The first women pilots followed soon after: Blanche Stuart Scott, Harriet Quimby, Katherine and Marjorie Stinson, Ruth Law, Neta Snook (who later taught Earhart to fly) and more.

And Joan introduced me to Aviatrix Bessie Coleman, who learned to fly in 1921.

Aviatrix = Woman Pilot

Being a woman and wanting to learn how to fly in early 20th century America was difficult enough. Bessie Coleman was not only a woman, she was a Black woman. In 1920, when she sought someone to teach her how to fly, no one would take her on as a student.

Born in Texas, Bessie by then lived on Chicago’s south side. She was an accomplished manicurist. When Robert Abbott, editor-publisher of the Chicago Defender newspaper, met Bessie he was impressed by her drive “to be someone.”  Abbott had established his newspaper to gain recognition for Black Americans. He understood her dream of becoming a pilot and told her she needed to go to France to learn to fly. The French, he pointed out to her, were not racist.

Bessie went to France. There, she learned to fly in a French Nieuport 82 biplane. It was described as “a fragile vehicle of wood, wire, steel, aluminum, cloth, and pressed cardboard.” It was similar to the Curtiss JN-4 — better known as “the Jenny” — a favorite for flight instruction in America in the 1920s.

Bessie and the All-Important Pre-Flight

One of the first things a new flight student learns is to give the airplane a thorough “pre-flight”, a walk-around, close inspection before taking off.

Author Doris Rich writes in Queen Bess, Daredevil Aviator: “Each time she took a lesson in the Nieuport, Bessie had to inspect the entire plane first for possible faults — wings, struts, wires, cloth covering, engine, propeller, cowling, and the four-wheel landing gear with pneumatic tires. Planes in those days had no steering wheel or brakes. The steering system 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.”

In trainer airplanes like the Nieuport and the Jenny, the student and the instructor sit in identical cockpits — one behind the other — each with an identical set of controls. Because of the noise from the engine, Bessie could not hear what the instructor was telling her to do. So she learned to fly “by watching her stick and rudder bar move as the instructor moved his. Soon she was placing her hands on the stick and her feet on the rudder bar, enabling her to get the feel of what he was doing.”

Bessie Earns Coveted FAI Pilot’s License

Bessie earned her pilot’s license on June 15, 1921, from “France’s most famous flight school, École d’Aviation de Frères Caudron.”  She qualified for the license issued by the renowned and most prestigious French Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI), “the only organization at the time whose recognition granted one the right to fly anywhere in the world.”

Bessie returned home and began to make a name for herself in the aviation-crazy world of 1920s America. It was not easy, but Bessie was a fighter. She became one of America’s famous daredevil barnstormers, traveling around the country flying acrobatic stunts in the earliest air shows. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Quotes etc. in this Blog are taken from pages 29-34 of Queen Bess, Daredevil Aviator, by Doris L. Rich, 1993.

Katie Gave Her Report on Aviatrix Bessie Coleman

Back to Katie. I ordered Nobody Owns the Sky: The Story of “Brave Bessie” Coleman, a children’s book by Reeve Lindbergh (Charles Lindbergh’s daughter) and illustrated by Pamela Paparone. Amazon delivered it to Katie on February 18, 2008. A few days later, she stood up in front of her class and told them about “Brave Bessie.” She wore the flight suit I had bought for her at the Women in Aviation conference, and a borrowed cloth flying helmet and goggles. I can’t find the photo or I would include it here. That day, a bunch of Atlanta, Georgia, kindergarteners learned about the first  Black woman to earn her pilot’s license, the barnstorming daredevil Bessie Coleman.

There are numerous books about Bessie Coleman. To read more about this gutsy pioneer aviatrix, visit your local library, or look online for the selection of biographies about her, including:

Nobody Owns the Sky: The Story of “Brave Bessie” Coleman

Queen Bess, Daredevil Aviator 

**The International Women’s Air and Space Museum is now located in Cleveland, Ohio, at Burke Lakefront Airport.

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