Bessie Coleman Earned Pilot’s License 100 Years Ago

 In Sarah Byrn Rickman

99s Museum of Women Pilots

Celebrates Bessie’s 100th Anniversary

When Bessie Coleman earned her pilot’s license on June 15, 1921 — 100 years ago — she was the first Black individual, man or women, to do so.

Bessie Coleman wanted to fly, to feel the wind in her hair and on her face. She wanted to hear the sound of the wind singing in the wires that held the early aircraft together. What was it like to leave the ground? What was it like to feel the thrust of the engine that lifted the pilot along with the aircraft?

Not permitted to take flying lessons in America because of her color, Bessie went to France. There, she enrolled in the Ècole d’Aviation des Frères Caudron. In seven months she completed the course.  She qualified for her license from France’s renown French Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI).

Bessie Coleman

Photo courtesy the 99s Museum of Women Pilots

Her License Dated June 15, 1921

Bessie “flew a five-kilometer closed-circuit course twice, climbing to fifty meters, negoatiating a figure eight, landing within fifty meters of the designated spot, and turning off the engine before touching down.”  She learned, among other things,  how to do tail spins, bank, and loop-the-loops. At that time, the United States didn’t yet license pilots. A French-issued license was accepted world-wide.

“Queen Bess,” as she came to be known, returned home to the United State to become a famous barnstormer. Sadly, Bessie perished April 30, 1926, in a tragic airplane crash.

26 Women Pilots Launch ‘Ninety-Nines’ in 1929

Three years after Bessie’s untimely death, what is now the oldest women pilots’ organization in existence was established.  On November 2, 1929, 26 women pilots gathered at Curtiss Airport in Valley Stream, Long Island, to discuss forming a group to represent licensed women pilots.

They conducted their business in a hangar above the din of a Curtiss Challenger engine running up as the work of the mechanics proceeded around them. Tea was served from a tool box wagon on wheels.

The women present that November day opted to invite all 117 American women known to hold pilot’s licenses as of that date. Ninety-Nine women opted to join. They established what today is known as the Ninety-Nines, the Organization of Women Pilots. Amelia Earhart, to no one’s surprise, was elected the first president and Louise Thaden vice president.

Today’s 99s Have a Worldwide Membership

Today, the membership is around 6,000 and is international in scope with women pilot members representing more than 40 countries. The Ninety-Nines Museum offers fascinating exhibits that tell the stories of Ninety-Nines members from the number of Charter members,99, to today — and much more. Women like Bessie Coleman and Harriet Quimby, who died long before the 99s was founded, are celebrated for their contributions to aviation and women’s aviation.

It is my privilege to serve as a trustee of the 99s Museum of Women Pilots, located on Amelia Earhart Drive, adjacent to the Will Rogers International Airport in Oklahoma City. Many welcome happenings have come my way because of my affiliation with the Ninety-Nines. On November 2, 2019, I was thrilled to be a part of the 90th celebration of the founding of the Ninety-Nines held at the Museum/Ninety-Nines Headquarters in Oklahoma City.

Marking Bessie’s Brief But Stellar Aviation Life

Last week — Tuesday, June 15, 2021 — the Ninety-Nines Museum of Women Pilots posted this to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the issuing of Bessie’s private pilot’s license. Click here to download the pdf.

And a new historical novel, A Pair of Wings: The Life of Pioneer Aviatrix Bessie Coleman, was released June 15, the 100th anniversary of her earning her certificate. The author is Carole Hopson.

Women’s aviation is alive and well because of contributions of the women aviators who have gone before us. Please join the Ninety Nines Museum of Women Pilots in celebrating them!

Thank you for reading my blog and please read my books about the women pilots who flew in World War II, the WASP  (Women Airforce Service Pilots).

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