Bessie Coleman Became the First African-American Female Pilot 97 Years Ago

By Kimberly Ison

When we think of female pilots throughout history, most of us immediately jump to Amelia Earhart. Some people think that Amelia was the ONLY female pilot of the time. That is simply untrue. Amelia Earhart just happened to have the best marketing scheme to promote herself and achieve popularity.

She was even taught to fly by a female pilot named Neta Snook. Amelia earned her pilot’s license in 1921, as did Bessie Coleman; the first African-American woman to earn a pilot’s license.

She learned to fly in a Nieuport 82 biplane with 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.

A difficult start

From the start, Bessie instantly had two strikes against her; she was a woman and women were not accepted into flight schools at the time, she was also black in an era that was struggling with post-Civil War Jim Crow laws. Because flying schools in the United States denied her entry, she took it upon herself to learn French at the Berlitz school in Chicago and move to France to achieve her goal.  

Bessie Coleman and her plane

Bessie Coleman and her plane. Photo: Wikipedia

She learned to fly in a Nieuport 82 biplane with 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.

The first African-American female pilot

On June 15, 1921, Coleman became the first woman of African-American descent to earn an aviation pilot’s license and the first person of African-American descent to earn an international aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. 

Bessie Coleman pilot

Bessie Coleman received her pilot’s license the same year as Amelia Earhart. Photo: Wikipedia

Amelia Earhart did not receive her pilot’s license until December of 1921. Though she wanted to start a flying school for African Americans when she returned to the U.S., Coleman specialized in stunt flying and parachuting, and earned a living barnstorming and performing aerial tricks.

In 1922, hers was the first public flight by an African-American woman in America; held at Curtiss Field on Long Island near New York City and sponsored by the Chicago Defender newspaper, the show billed Coleman as “the world’s greatest woman flier”.

Bessie Coleman’s pilot license. Photo: Wikipedia

Legacy

Coleman would not live long enough to establish a school for young black aviators but her pioneering achievements served as an inspiration for a generation of African-American men and women.

Tragically, on April 30, 1926, Coleman was killed in an accident during a rehearsal for an aerial show which sent her plummeting to her death. She was only 34 years old. Coleman remains a pioneer of women in the field of aviation.

About the Author

Kimberly Ison
My name is Kimberly Ison and I am an aspiring History professor with a great passion and love for all things History! Besides writing for the amazing History Hustle I also run my own blog dedicated to History called KimsKonnections. I enjoy reading, spending time with my pitbull Ruby, and a great cup of coffee!!

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