Science, Inventions, Medicine, and Aerospace


Who was the first black woman to hold a commercial pilot’s license?

In 1934 Willa Brown-Chappell (1906–1992) became the first black woman in the United States to hold a commercial pilot’s license, and the first black woman to gain officer rank (lieutenant) in the Civil Air Patrol Squadron. In 1937 Brown-Chappell and Cornelius R. Coffee, who was her flight instructor and also became her husband, formed the National Airmen’s Association of America, the first black aviators’ group. Its mission was to promote black aviation. In 1972 Brown-Chappell was the first black member of the Federal Aviation Agency’s Women’s Advisory Commission. Brown-Chappell was born in Glasgow, Kentucky, and relocated to Indianapolis with her family when she was about six years old. Still later the family moved to Terre Haute, Indiana. In 1927 she graduated from Indiana State Teachers College and then taught school in Gary, Indiana. Five years later she moved to Chicago and taught in the local schools. She began graduate study at Northwestern University in 1934, graduating three years later. While at Northwestern Brown-Chappell developed an interest in aviation and began to take flying lessons. Her friend, aviator Bessie Coleman, had inspired her. In 1935 she received a master mechanic’s certificate from the Aeronautical University located in the Chicago Loop. After obtaining her private pilot’s license, she became affiliated with a flight service at Harlem Airport and gave short entertainment jaunts for those who would pay one dollar for the ride. After Brown-Chappell, her husband Cornelius R. Coffee, and journalist Enoc P. Waters Jr. founded the National Airmen’s Association of America in 1939, she was elected national secretary of the organization. She also began to teach aviation in the Works Progress Administration’s Adult Education Program and worked to stimulate blacks to prepare for careers in aviation through the children’s flight clubs that she founded. In the early 1940s Brown-Chappell taught aviation mechanics in the Chicago schools. In 1946 she was the first black woman to run for a congressional seat, but was unsuccessful in her bid.


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