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April 2010 Newsletter

by John M. White |

“Queen Bess” Coleman Paved the Way for Women and African American Pilots
Bessie Coleman must have been proud when she performed the barrel rolls and loop-the-loops she became famous for in her hometown of Waxahachie, Texas, just four years after becoming the first African American licensed pilot. The performance nearly didn't happen, though; Coleman steadfastly refused to accept the plans for segregated entrance gates and facilities for the show. She finally got her way with a single, unified admission point before blacks and whites were sent to their separate bleachers. Born one of thirteen children born to a Cherokee father and African American mother, Elizabeth Coleman was born January 26, 1892, in Atlanta, Texas. The sharecropper family moved to Waxahachie where young Bessie squeezed in as much school as she could between picking cotton and doing laundry for hire. In 1901, frustrated and angered by the racial strife in the South, George Coleman lobbied to move his family to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). Bessie's mother Susan would hear nothing of raising her children on a reservation and stayed behind to raise the children alone.Bessie always aspired to “make something of herself.” She graduated from high school and attended one semester of college at Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University before she ran out of money and returned home. Knowing the struggles ahead if she stayed in the South, Bessie moved to Chicago in 1915 where she lived with two of her brothers and worked as a manicurist at the White Sox Barber Shop. Many of the shop customers were pilots just home from World War I. Enthralled with flying stories, Bessie began to dream about learning to fly. When her brother teased her that French women, many of whom were already pilots, were better than the black women of Chicago's south side, Bessie became even more determined to challenge the limited set of opportunities available to her. Being both black and a woman put Bessie at a double disadvantage; no one in the United States would accept her as a flight student. Work at the barber shop also exposed Bessie to many prominent men in Chicago's black community, including Robert S. Abbott, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender newspaper, and real estate mogul Jesse Binga. After she took French classes at night, Binga and Abbot sponsored her travel to the much more progressive France, where she flew Nieuport airplanes at the Caudron Brothers' School of Aviation in Le Crotoy. Bessie earned her pilot license from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale on June 15, 1921; this made her the first African American licensed pilot and the first American (regardless of race or gender) to hold an international pilot license. She spent two more months polishing her skills before returning to the United States and the realities of earning a living as a civilian pilot. Barnstorming and stunt flying were the most lucrative forms of flying and Bessie lacked the skill to perform the required maneuvers. Back to France for a two month advanced aviation course, then to Germany for additional training with one of the Fokker Corporation's chief pilots. Abbott and the Defender promoted Bessie's style, flamboyance, and beauty. She debuted in America September 3, 1922, at Long Island's Curtiss Field, at an air show that fittingly honored the all-black 369th American Expeditionary Force of World War I. She soon became a media darling, known across the country as “Queen Bess.” Despite all the praise and attention, Bessie never lost sight of her greatest dream: to found a flight school for aspiring African-American pilots. She broke a leg and three ribs in a stall/crash while practicing for an air show in Los Angeles, California on February 22, 1923. Although badly shaken, she returned to performing full time in 1925, shortly before her dazzling hometown display. On April 30, 1926, at age 34 and less than five years after beginning her aviation career, Bessie's plane did not pull out of a planned nosedive and entered a spin. William Wills, her mechanic and agent, was flying the plane while she scouted a landing spot for a parachute jump scheduled for the following day. She did not strap in so she could lean forward to look over the cockpit. She was thrown from the plane and killed on impact. Wills also died in the crash. A loose wrench had worked its way into the gearbox and jammed the controls. Bessie Coleman's legacy became more widely appreciated as time passed. In 1931, the Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs sponsored the first all-African American Air Show which drew nearly 15,000 viewers. Also that year, a group of African American pilots established an annual flyover of her Lincoln Cemetery grave in Chicago. Coleman was inducted into the First Flight Society in 1989, the Women in Aviation Hall of Fame in 1995, and the Texas Aviation Hall of Fame in 2000. A postage stamp in her image was released in 1995.
Great Poems: "Moon Over The Black Sea"
Silver streams of cascading light, blanch out across the glimmering sea. The moon complete is in our sight, her mountains dark and dancing free. Towns slip by under the skirts of night, their streets parade with amber glow. Over Caspian and Black the seas of our flight, the energy of life comes as a reflected glow. A sliver of light betrays the dawn, as our trusty guide heeds curtain call. The clouds of dark conceal her form, a new day arrives God pressed instal by Petr Kentley
What's New

The Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award

"I am convinced that human flight is both possible and practical." Wilbur Wright, 1899 The Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award recognizes pilots who have demonstrated professionalism, skill and aviation expertise by maintaining safe operations for 50 or more years. Recipients are awarded a certificate and a lapel pin and are recognized in our Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award - Roll of Honor located online, here, at FAASafety.gov! For information regarding eligibility, how to apply or the selection process, download the Information Guide and Application form. (PDF) If you have additional questions, you can also contact your local FAASTeam Program Manager.
Photo of the Month
Bessie Coleman - First African American Licensed Pilot
John M. White, Editor Each month we bring you informative, educational and entertaining articles about all things aviation. You can find more timely and current articles here at our blog: All Things Aviation Check Out Our Newsletter Archives
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