Bessie Coleman: The first woman of African-American and Native American descent to become a pilot


Born on January 26, 1892, in Atlanta, Texas, Bessie Coleman became the first African-American and Native American woman pilot in the United States. She grew up in a sharecropper’s family, her father George was Cherokee or Choctaw and part African-American and her mother Susan was an African-American. Being one of 13 children wasn’t easy back in those days. When Bessie was two, her family moved to Waxahachie, Texas.

At the age of six, she started attending a segregated school and every day she had to walk four miles to reach it. Bessie turned out to be an excellent math student and she didn’t have any trouble finishing all eight grades in school.

Bessie Coleman

After Coleman had turned 18, she decided to continue studying, She gathered all of her savings and managed to enter the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University (Langston University), in Langston, Oklahoma. Unfortunately, she only had enough money for one term and so was forced to leave. In 1916, Bessie was 23, and she moved to Chicago together with her brothers. There she found a job as a manicurist in a local barber shop. While she was tending to the customers, she heard all kinds of wild stories about the pilots that were flying during World War I. The wish to become a pilot grew stronger in her every day. In order to obtain enough money to achieve her dream, Bessie took a second job, but the problem was that flight schools in the United States during that time had a policy not to admit any women or African-Americans.

Luckily some people saw her potential and decided to help her. Those people were Robert S. Abbott, the founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender, and banker Jesse Binga. They motivated Bessie to go and study in France and they even sponsored her education and trip.

Robert S. Abbott

Coleman arrived in Paris on November 20, 1920, and she started immediately working on achieving her dream. The plane that she learned to fly in was called Nieuport 82 biplane, with a control mechanism described as follows, “a steering system that consisted of a vertical stick the thickness of a baseball bat in front of the pilot, and a rudder bar under the pilot’s feet”. Bessie was a fast learner. Her hard work paid off and on June 15, 1921, she got her international aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.

After improving her flying skills with the help of some French ace pilots, Bessie returned to New York in September 1921 and immediately became a media sensation.

Coleman’s international aviation license

With her newly gained skill, Bessie didn’t have much to do. Commercial flights were still a thing of the future. One of the only ways a pilot could earn money back in those days besides fighting in a war was by becoming a “barnstorming” stunt flier. Bessie wasn’t experienced enough to perform complicated maneuvers with which she could entertain an audience, so she decided to go back to Europe for more training.

Bessie Coleman in 1922

She returned to France in 1922 and took an advanced flying course, and after that, she went to the Netherlands where she met Anthony Fokker, the legendary aircraft designer. Fokker took her to Germany where she had the opportunity to learn flying from some of the Fokker Corporation’s top pilots.

Upon returning to the United States, Bessie began her stunt flying career and took a stage name, “Queen Bess”. In the next five years, Bessie became on of the most popular stunt fliers in the country. Everybody was astonished by her capabilities and stunts. The first American airshow that she was part of happened at Curtiss Field on Long Island, near New York City, on September 3, 1922, during the veteran honoring of the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment of World War I. This event was sponsored by Bessie’s old friend Robert S. Abbott and the Chicago Defender newspaper. Coleman was immediately described as “the greatest woman pilot in the world”.

A Curtiss JN-4 (Jenny) during a WWI training flight.

Queen Bess usually flew Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplanes that were army surplus from the war. Unfortunately, this biplane model would be the one that was to cause Bessie’s early death. In 1926, Bessie managed to buy her own Curtiss JN-4 (Jenny). William D. Wills, Bessie’s mechanic and agent, flew the plane from Dallas to Jacksonville, Florida, where she was in that moment. He immediately noticed some problems with the plane and was forced to make a few forced landings. On April 30, 1926, Wills took off from Jacksonville, with Coleman in the back seat. She hadn’t put on her seatbelt because she wanted to look over the cockpit and check out the terrain for a parachute jump that she planned to do. After ten minutes, the plane went into a dive and then it started spinning. Without her seatbelt on, Bessie was thrown out at the altitude of 2,000 ft (610 m) and died on impact. Wills, who was unable to regain control, died when the plane crashed and burst into flames.

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Coleman died when she was only 34 years old, at the peak of her career. If it weren’t for that terrible accident, she would surely have become an even more amazing pilot.