Posts Tagged ‘Tuskegee Airmen’

Bessie Coleman’s journey to flight

Wednesday, June 12th, 2013

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

Your aviation inspirations, Part II

Tuesday, August 28th, 2012

This is part two of a two-part blog in which readers submitted their aviation heroes–the ones who inspired them to learn to fly or continue their flight training when things got rocky. The first installment can be found here (or cut and paste this URL: ).

Dwayne King. The director of Kingdom Air Corps ( ) is a missionary pilot who was one of the first to make such a flight to Provideniya in Far East Russia. His organization prepares student pilots and mechanics for missions. Many of the students are from LeTourneau University’s aviation program, where he has been on the faculty. Suggested by Matt F.

Charles A. Lindbergh’s solo nonstop flight from Long Island to Paris in 1927 catapulted him to fame. (Some believe the Lindy Hop was named for him, but that’s not the case; it originated before Lindbergh made his flight, and while some called it “the Lindbergh Hop,” that didn’t last.) Lindbergh went on to promote the development of commercial aviation and air mail services. Sadly, Lindbergh’s fame was almost eclipsed by the tragic kidnapping and murder of his infant son. Lindbergh was suggested by Don Eck, who says his hero’s flight across the Atlantic was “absolute proof that ‘navigation’ isn’t simply spelled G-P-S, V-O-R, I-L-S, or A-D-F, and also that it is possible to get to your intended destination to get to the radio.”

Robin Olds was one of the pioneer jet pilots of the U.S. Air Force. As a “triple Ace,” he had a combined total of 16 victories in World War II and the Vietnam War. Aviation historians consider Olds the best wing commander of the Vietnam War, citing his air-fighting skills and his reputation as a combat leader.


The Millionaires’ Unit:   Alyson Booher thoughtfully provided a link to a trailer for a documentary ( ) on these World War I pilots–a group of Yale University students formed in 1916 who privately funded an air militia that became the nation’s first air coast guard patrol unit.


William “Billy” Mitchell, considered the father of the U.S. Air Force. By the end of World War I he commanded all U.S. air combat units in France. After the war, he advocated increased investment in air power. He is the only person for whom a type of U.S. military aircraft is named–that would be the North American B-25 Mitchell. Suggested by Randall Tilley.

Dick and Burt Rutan. Suggested by Jill (no last name), who called them “the modern-day Wright brothers,” the Rutans formed an aircraft company, and Elbert “Burt” Rutan designed the Voyager–the first airplane to fly around the world without stopping or refueling. Richard “Dick” Rutan was the one who made that record-setting flight with co-pilot Jenna Yeager. Burt Rutan also designed the sub-orbital SpaceShipOne and the experimental VariEze and Long-EZ.

“Sky King.” This 1940s and 1950s radio and television series was suggested by Flight Training Contributing Editor Greg Brown. “We desperately need a sequel!” he says of the show, which featured an Arizona rancher and pilot who captured criminals and spies and found lost hikers. His airplane was portrayed by first a Cessna T-50 and, later, a Cessna 310B, and it was called Songbird.

Sir Charles Kingsford Smith.  Suggested by Darrell O’Sullivan, “Smithy” was an Australian pilot who made the first trans-Pacific flight from the United States to Australia in 1928, as well as the first nonstop crossing of the Australia mainland, the first flights between Australia and New Zealand, and the first eastward Pacific crossing from Australia to the United States.

The Tuskegee Airmen. A little-known chapter of aviation history for decades, the Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-American pilots in the U.S. armed forces. Before 1940, African Americans were barred from flying in the U.S. military. While films and television typically focus on the pilots, “Tuskegee Airmen” actually refers to all who were involved in the Army Airs Corps program at Tuskegee Field in Alabama to train African Americans to fly and maintain combat aircraft–pilots, navigators, bombardiers, maintenance and support staff, and instructors. The pilots formed the 332nd Fighter Group and the 447th bombardment Group of the United States Army Air Corps. Suggested by Denis Gagnon, Chris Mullins, and Steven Warren.


Chuck Yeager  was a test pilot who was the first to break the sound barrier in October 1947, flying the Bell X-1 at Mach 1. He became synonymous with the term “the right stuff” when he was featured in Tom Wolfe’s book of the same name and its movie adaptation.



Honorable mention: When I published Part 1 of this blog, some readers were stricken to learn that no one had mentioned Bob Hoover and Scott Crossfield. So here they are, and deservedly so.

  • Search on YouTube for “Bob Hoover pours ice tea” and watch what happens. If you’ve never seen or read anything about Hoover, this will likely show you more than words could ever say what a great pilot can do. Jimmy Doolittle (remember, he performed the outside loop that had thwarted other hapless pilots) called Hoover “the greatest stick-and-rudder man who ever lived.”
  • Crossfield was a test pilot alongside Chuck Yeager, and in fact became the first person to fly at twice the speed of sound in 1953. He, too, was featured in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff and the film adaptation.

I’ve barely scratched the surface of these remarkable people’s aviation accomplishments, so I urge you to research them yourself. If you have not found an aviation inspiration, surely this group is a great place to start.—Jill W. Tallman