Posts Tagged ‘women pilots; aviation history’

Bessie Coleman: a life less ordinary

Monday, January 26th, 2009

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?