Jill Tallman

Bessie Coleman: a life less ordinary

January 26, 2009 by Jill W. Tallman, Associate Editor

Today is the birthday of Bessie Coleman, the first African-American female pilot. Born in 1892, the tenth of 13 children, Coleman got the idea of becoming a pilot while reading newspaper articles about World War I pilots. No flight school in the United States would train her, but Coleman didn’t let that stop her. She took a French language course in Chicago, then, using her savings and the help of some influential friends, she traveled to France. She learned to fly and got her license in 1921 from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale. When Coleman returned to the United States, now a celebrity, she performed in airshows and raised money to open her own flight school. She died in 1926 in an aircraft accident, apparently while flight testing a Curtiss JN-4 (I say “apparently” because there are differing accounts of what exactly happened). Coleman, riding in the rear seat, was not wearing a seat belt. (She may have been unable to see over the cockpit when strapped in.) Her mechanic was flying from the front. A wrench may have fallen into the controls and jammed them; the mechanic lost control of the aircraft, and Coleman fell out. Her mechanic also died in the ensuing crash.

Racial barriers failed to keep Bessie Coleman from taking her place in the sky. What might she have accomplished had she lived to a ripe old age? 

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3 Responses to “Bessie Coleman: a life less ordinary”

  1. Bill T Wambach Says:

    I was one year old when Bessie Coleman died. I never heard of her until about 1995. But, I was a Naval Aviation Cadet in WWII, and never heard of the Tuskegee Airmen until EAA honored them with a celebration of a half century since they had safely escorted bombers in WWII.
    That year I took a second-grade class up – 3 at a time – for their Young Eagles ride. They invited me to their parents night to show off what they’d learned about aviation. They made propellors & let them spin down vertical strings, and other hands-on things.
    They had a book on the life of Bessie Coleman, because their teacher was a black woman, and well over half the class were black children. They eagerly showed it to me.
    So, I borrowed it out of the public library & read about this amazing, courageous, resourceful woman.
    The plunging stock market this year has made it necessary for me to quit flying, because my pension won’t cover the cost any more. But, in16 years I’ve flown 645 kids into the Young Eagles. I’ll cherish that memory as long as I live.

  2. Robert S. Gittens, USN-Ret. Says:

    As my ‘e’ address may suggest I was constantly encouraged to “flybobsolo” while a student pilot in the very early 1970s after retiring from the Navy in 1968.
    What is unique about me is that I was one of the first Afro American enlisted in the U.S.Navy to fly as a crewmember in the early 1950s, in fact I was one of the first to go into Naval Aviation as an Aircraft Engine Mechanic. You see until then President Truman changed the policies about Afro Americans only doing servitudial duies in the Navy.
    At any rate I am proud for our race to be finally recognized positively, especially 2009.

  3. Phil DeRosier Says:

    Ahhh yes … Queen Bess!!

    Why does it seem that the pioneers and trailblazers of yester-year always seem to have been more bold … more daring … that today’s crop of ‘adventurists’?

    Ms. Coleman had the “right stuff” long before that marquis became part of the modern vernacular. What other than a ‘tough-as-nails’ personality like Ms. Coleman, could possibly maneuver the labyrinth of obstacles–both legitimate, and otherwise–to ascend to what was truly a timeless dream of all mankind–to fly!

    All America should be truly proud of the heritage left by people like Queen Bess and others. Hers is a story of “Yes, I can! Yes, I will! Hers is a story that is uniquely American.

    Phil DeRosier
    Chief Flight Instructor
    Delaware State University
    Dover, DE 19901

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