Famous Aviator Bessie Coleman: First African-American Woman Pilot

As the very first Native American and African American woman aviator, Bessie Coleman soared through the air. Coleman earned the nicknames "Brave Bessie", "Queen Bess", and "The Only Race Aerobatic pilot in the World" for her aviation skill. Her intention was to inspire African Americans and women to pursue their aspirations. Sadly, a catastrophic airplane disaster put a stop to her journey, but her life has continued to influence individuals all around the globe.

Early Life

Bessie Coleman, born on January 26, 1892, in Atlanta, Texas, had 12 brothers and sisters. Her dad, George Coleman, was a sharecropper of mixed Native American and African American ancestry, and her mom, Susan Coleman, was an African American maid. As a child, Bessie earned extra money by assisting her mother in harvesting cotton and laundering the clothes. By the time she turned 18, she had saved enough money to enroll in Langston, Oklahoma's Colored Agriculture and Normal University (currently Langston University). She left after just one semester due to a lack of funds.

Struggle to Become a Pilot

Coleman moved with her brothers to Chicago when she was 23. In 1915, she enrolled in the Burnham School of Beauty Culture and started working as a manicurist in a neighborhood beauty salon. Her brothers had served in the armed services during World War I and returned home with tales of their experiences in France. Her brother John teased her because the French allowed women to learn to fly airplanes and Bessie could not. As a result, Bessie’s desire to fly blossomed. She applied to numerous aviation schools all around the country, but none of them would accept her since she was both a woman and an African American.

Robert Abbott, a well-known African American newspaper publisher, advised her to relocate to France so she could learn how to pilot. Since her candidacy to flying schools had to be prepared in French, she started taking evening French lessons.

Flight Training in France

The Caudron Brothers' School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France, eventually accepted Coleman’s application. A Nieuport 564 biplane served as her training aircraft.

On June 15, 1921, Fédération Aéronautique International international granted Coleman her pilot's license, and she became first black person and first Native American female to receive a pilot license. When she returned to the United States after earning her pilot’s license, the Associated Press met her with great fanfare.


With commercial aviation still at least a decade away, Coleman quickly realized that the only way she could support herself as a civilian pilot was to become a "barnstorming" acrobatic pilot, performing perilous stunts in the air for paying spectators while flying aircrafts that were still in their formative stages. She was well-known for performing "loop-the-loops" and figure 8s in the sky. Her performances captivated audiences, and she grew in popularity in both Europe and the USA. She pushed African Americans as well as women to train to fly as she travelled the nation providing flying lessons and participating in aviation events.

First Airplane Crash

Coleman had only been a pilot for two years when she managed to dodge her first significant airplane crash. Her plane's engine failed unexpectedly in February 1923, causing her to crash. She sustained severe injuries in the collision, including a leg injury, many fractured ribs, and facial cuts. Coleman was fortunate enough to recover completely from her wounds. She continued to fly despite the mishap.

Passion to Support Women in Aviation Industry

In 1925, she resumed her risky air-trick routine. Her diligent efforts allowed her to accumulate enough cash to buy a Jenny JN-4 with an OX-5 engine as her own aircraft. She soon travelled back to Texas to perform during a large event. 

The stadium's administrators wanted to establish two distinct entry points for white and African American spectators since Texas was still segregated. She refused to fly in the show stating that there must be one gate must be used by everyone. The stadium's organizers finally settled on having just one gate, but segregated seating areas would still be required. She consented to perform and rose to fame for defending her principles. This is only one example of Coleman’s refusal to participate in events that refused to admit African-Americans or that perpetuated derogatory images of blacks.

The JN-4 Crash

Shortly after purchasing a Curtiss JN-4, Bessie Coleman flew a testing flight in the plane with her mechanic William Wills on April 30, 1926 in Dallas. Coleman was sitting on the passengers seat while Wills was flying the aircraft. A loose wrench became lodged in the aircraft's engine at a height of roughly 3,000 feet. The plane overturned when Wills lost control of the steering wheel. Coleman was not wearing a seat belt, and at the time, there was no roof or other form of safety on airplanes. Coleman fell from the plan and died upon impact. Wills crashed and died not far from where Coleman had landed. Her passing broke the hearts of countless people.

The funeral service for Coleman was officiated by renowned activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett in Chicago. The Chicago Challenger Pilots' Association established the annual practice of flying over Coleman's grave in 1931. African American female pilots established the Bessie Coleman Aviators Club by 1977. The "Bessie Coleman Stamp" was created in 1995 as a tribute to all of her achievements.