Bessie Coleman’s journey to flight

Jean Moule last wrote about being a 67-year-old student pilot for the Flight Training blog. She is an emerita faculty member of Oregon State University, and a published writer and artist. Visit her website. —Ed.

Bessie_Coleman_and_her_plane_(1922)Who was the first American to hold an international pilot license?

Early in my training, my flight instructor introduced me to this aviation pioneer, Bessie Coleman. Steve Larsen, CFI, knew from my observations that I needed familiarity with the existence of Black women in aviation to help me, a woman of African descent, feel more comfortable in the left seat. He had connected me to another Black female student pilot as well.

Curious and inspired, I spent hours in Coleman’s history. Because flight schools in the United States would not teach Blacks, Bessie taught herself French, then went to France to learn and earn her pilot’s license.

Bessie was born in Texas in 1893 as one of 13 children of sharecroppers. She was gifted in math, loved books, and walked eight miles round trip to attend a one-room school for Blacks. She went to Oklahoma where she managed one term at a university, but had to leave due to lack of money. She returned to Waxahachie, Texas, and worked as a laundress. The small southern town had little to keep her challenged and engaged.

In 1915, at 23, Bessie moved to Chicago. She lived with her brothers and worked as a beautician, one time named as the best and fastest manicurist in the city. In Chicago Bessie heard and read stories of World War I soldiers and pilots as they returned from Europe. The stories opened possibilities. She and her brother, a soldier, talked.

“Those French women do something no colored girl has,” her brother teased. “They fly.”

Taking the challenge, Bessie decided to become a pilot. Due to both race and gender discrimination, she gave up trying to enter a flight school in the United States and began her study of French. She learned the language well enough to grasp the principles of flight and aeronautical terms in that language.  Then she went to France.

She completed a 10-month course in seven months. She earned her license and returned to the United States. She earned her living barnstorming and performing aerial tricks, specializing in stunt flying and parachuting. Beyond her own support, her goal was to start a flying school for African Americans.

Bessie’s high-flying skills wowed audiences of thousands. She was well known all over the United States, with huge headlines whenever she would be in the air.

During a rehearsal for a show in 1926, she leaned out of an airplane flown by her mechanic to check her parachute-landing site. The airplane began an unexpected dive toward the ground.

Bessie, unbelted and thrown out, fell 1,500 feet to her death.

The mechanic was unable to gain control of the airplane and died as well.  A misplaced wrench was later found lodged in the wreckage of the engine.

Thousands mourned for Bessie. Ten thousand people attended her three funerals. After her death at age 33, others took up her cause to begin flight schools that allowed Blacks entry.

Some of those who learned to fly in her memory and inspiration in these flight schools were early enrollees in the World War II Tuskegee Airmen Division.

Now I had a family link: My grandson’s great-grandfather was an instructor in that WW II division.

Bessie’s legacy continues down through the years: In 1929 the aviation school she worked to establish was founded in Los Angeles. Roads, highways, and flying clubs for women were named after her. In 1995 the U.S. Postal Service issued the Bessie Coleman stamp. And every year on Memorial Day, the Tuskegee Airmen fly over Brave Bessie’s grave and drop flowers in her honor.

My children have all flown commercially, as have my grandchildren. One grandchild, Chance—great-grandson of Tuskegee Airman Instructor James A. Hill—leads the rest: Before he was 5 years old he had flown on 120 flight segments.

For leading the way, I give my thanks to Elizabeth “Bessie” Coleman, the first American aviator of any race or gender to hold an international pilot license, the first person of African descent to be licensed in the United States, a pioneer in aviation education for all people, and a motivator for my own flying.

Here’s to Bessie, a woman of my hue and the first American licensed to fly anywhere in the world. Here’s to all those who venture into the air!

Bessie said, “Do you know that you have never lived until you have flown?”—Jean Moule

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9 Responses to “Bessie Coleman’s journey to flight”

  1. Thank you for sharing this wonderful story. Thirty years ago I soloed in a little Cessna, but never got my license. Now, I am in the process of writing a young adult book about the Wright Brothers’ flying school in Alabama. Somehow, I’ve got to work Bessie Coleman into my story. Love the quote, because truly you haven’t lived until you’ve flown.

  2. Calvin Allen says:

    Thank you for your recognition of Bessie Coleman. As an African-American aviator, I am always inspired by the increasing ranks of African-Americans learning to fly and/or passing on that passion to our youth. Best of luck to you in your flying and continue to be a mentor to others, young and old.

    Calvin Allen, Captain B-767ER
    Delta Airlines

  3. Capt Craig says:

    Out of a 100% of all the pilots in the entire world, less than 1% are black so I am excited to see black people showing an interest in general aviation like I do.

  4. JC Harbottle says:

    Ever returned a rental car to O’Hare Airport? Before getting to the terminal itself, you take the exit onto Bessie Coleman Drive to get to the rental car lots.

  5. Jean Moule says:

    I read the comment by Calvin Allen and I wondered… He is a Delta pilot, my preferred airline (used to be NW).

    A few years ago I experienced a commercial airline landing so very soft that I truly could not be sure we were on the ground. I fly commercially quite a bit, so I have lots of landings to compare this one to.

    I decided to especially thank the pilot and note this feather soft feat. Imagine my surprise to encounter the only African American commercial pilot I have ever had the pleasure of seeing. I did not remember his name.

    Perhaps it was Captain Allen.

    If so, thanks for the memory and encouragement.

    Jean

  6. Excellent article! Thank you for sharing this wonderful story.

  7. Remote Technology Support says:

    Hello,
    Here’s to Bessie, a woman of my hue and the first American licensed to fly anywhere in the world. Here’s to all those who venture into the air!

  8. Jean Moule says:

    I have recently received information about others that preceded Bessie to an International License and the first African American to hold a license in the USA. I regret the error.

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