Marking Black History Month with pioneers of flight

Marking Black History Month with pioneers of flight


Throughout history, brave individuals have shattered systemic barriers and overcome obstacles that seemed insurmountable, driven by their unwavering determination to achieve their dreams. As we commemorate Black History Month, let us be inspired by the remarkable talent, strength, and perseverance of those who blazed a trail in the aviation industry, leaving an undeniable mark on history.

While there are many incredible people worth honouring, today we’re shining a light on some of the notable pioneers who paved the way for generations to come.

Willa Brown


Not only was it challenging for women to enter the male-dominant aviation industry during its advent, it was especially difficult for women of colour. Despite the odds, Willa Brown was not one to be deterred from achieving her goals. In fact, her determination led her to become the first African American woman to earn a pilot license in the U.S. in 1938. She went on to make history by becoming the first African American woman to earn a commercial pilot's license in 1939. Her inspiration stemmed from Bessie Coleman who had become the first African American woman.

Brown used her energy to promote civil rights and encourage aeronautics participation within the Chicago African American community and beyond. She became the first African American woman officer in the Illinois Civil Air Patrol (CAP), and a devoted advocate for African American pilots. Toward this goal, she teamed up with Cornelius R. Coffey, her former teacher, mentor, and later husband, and founded the Coffey School of Aeronautics.

In 1939 she cofounded the National Airmen’s Association of America (NAA), a group for Black aviators, and continued to take ground-breaking strides throughout her life, including becoming the first African American woman to run for Congress in 1946. Willa Brown was truly a pioneer in supporting African American pilots, helped open the doors for them to join the military, and set an example for others who followed in her footsteps.

Cornelius Coffey


When we think of trailblazers in aviation, we also think of Cornelius Coffey—a notable advocate for the education of black Americans in aviation. Facing a number of obstacles along his career path, Coffey never faltered from forging his own way. After graduating as an engineer in the late 1920s, Coffey wanted to pursue his dream of flying, but was initially rejected due to his race.

Nevertheless, he became the first Black American to hold an Aircraft Engine Mechanic’s certificate, and the first to hold both a pilot’s and mechanic’s license. Coffey was driven to open the doors to others. He and Willa Brown established an aeronautical school — The Coffey School of Aeronautics —which saw notable graduates including members of the Tuskegee Airmen. Coffey’s contributions led to the integration of black pilots into both the civilian aviation industry and the military.

The Tuskegee Airmen


Following Cornelius Coffey and Willa Brown’s efforts to support inclusion and integration, The Tuskegee Airmen became the first black aviators welcomed into the U.S. military, and more specifically, the U.S. Army Air Corps (AAC). They flew over 15,000 sorties in Europe and North Africa during World War II. Together, they earned more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses for their incredible performance and continued encouraging and inspiring inclusiveness in the U.S. armed forces.

As this month continues, we encourage you to learn more about the incredible people who broke down barriers and helped shape the industry as we know it.

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