Make no mistake African-American women do fly planes, and in growing numbers greater than one might think! Surprising to many, black women have been earning their wings since 1921 when Bessie Coleman was licensed in Paris from the Federation Aeronautique Internationale (F.A.I.), and subsequently received an international pilot’s license to became the first African-American to do so. That includes women and men.
“There are about 86,000 commercial pilots in this country today,” explains Lt. Col., Beverly Armstrong, a black female pilot, and president and founder of The Bessie Coleman Foundation. “Of those 86,000, approximately 1200 are African-Americans, and about 100 of those are female.”
Bessie Coleman made her first contribution not just to African-American history but American History and everyone can benefit from knowing her story. Nikki Knight is the 2nd Black female pilot to graduate from the United States Army pilot school, Sheila Chamberlain is the 5th, and in June of 1986, Beverly Armstrong became the10th Black women to graduate. “I was amazed to find out that I was only the 10th woman to graduate from the Army’s helicopter school and this was the 80s,” says Coleman. “Black women represent less than six percent of all African-American aviators. My hope is to change that and increase those numbers!”
Black Women of Aviation History – first Asian American woman pilot.
Willa Beatrice Brown (1906-1992) As a young high school teacher in Gary, Indiana, and later as a social worker in Chicago, Willa Brown felt that her talents were being wasted. She sought greater challenges and adventures in life, especially if they could be found outside the limited career fields normally open to African Americans. She decided to learn to fly, studying with Cornelius R. Coffey, a certified flight instructor and expert aviation mechanic at one of Chicago’s racially segregated airports. She earned her private pilot’s license in 1938. Later, Brown and Coffey married and established the Coffey School of Aeronautics at Harlem Airport in Chicago, where they trained black pilots and aviation mechanics. Together with Cornelius Coffey and Enoch P. Waters, Willa Brown helped form the National Airmen’s Association of America in 1939, whose main goal was to get black aviation cadets into the United States military. As the organization’s national secretary and the president of the Chicago branch, Brown became an activist for racial equality. She continually lobbied the government for integration of black pilots into the segregated Army Air Corps and the federal Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP), the system established by the Civil Aeronautics Authority to provide a pool of civilian pilots for use during national emergencies. Subsequently, when Congress finally voted to allow separate-but-equal participation of blacks in civilian flight training programs, the Coffey School of Aeronautics was chosen for participation in the CPTP. Brown became the coordinator for the CPTP in Chicago. Later, her flight school was also selected by the U.S. Army to provide black trainees for the Air Corps pilot training program at the Tuskegee Institute. Willa Brown eventually became the coordinator of war-training service for the Civil Aeronautics Authority and later was a member of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Women’s Advisory Board. She was the first black female officer in the Civil Air Patrol and the first black woman to hold a commercial pilot’s license in the United States.
Dorothy Arlene Layne McIntyre
When Dorothy A. Layne received her private pilot’s license on February 23, 1940, she was one of only two young Black women to first receive such training under the auspices of the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA) and had reached a goal which began as a youngster.
Mrs. Layne, born in LeRoy, New York, got interested in flight attending annual air shows at the LeRoy Airport with her family and on occasion taking flights with aviators in the area. After high school she attended West Virginia State College, majoring in Business Administration. During the 1939- 1940 school year, a cadet flying program was introduced at the college by the CAA, in which one woman was permitted to train with each group of’ ten male students. Mrs. Layne eagerly applied and was accepted for the program which was being conducted at Wertz Airport in Charleston, West Virginia.
“When they brought the flying course to the school, a lot of people applied. You had to be strong in math and science skills and you had to pass the physical, which was very strenuous,” said Mrs. Layne. After graduating from West Virginia State College in 1941, Mrs. Layne logged additional flight hours in Rochester, New York and Cleveland, Ohio. During World war II she taught aircraft Mechanics at the War Production Training School in Baltimore, Maryland. After marriage to F. Benjamin McIntyre in Cleveland, Ohio she worked as an independent accountant, bookkeeper, social worker and a Cleveland Public School teacher, retiring in 1979. Her daughter, Dianne McIntyre, produced “Take Off from a Forced Landing”, a play created in 1984 in honor of’ her mother.
CHEUNG, KATHERINE SUI FUN (1904 – 2003) – first Asian American woman pilot. Ms. Cheung came to the United States from China when she was 17 years old. He original plan was to study music, but her fascination with flying motivated her to start taking lessons while still in her mid-20′s. She soloed after only 12.5 hours of instruction. She became a member of the exclusive “99 Club”, an all-female pilot’s association started in the late 20′s – early 30′s by the likes of Amelia Earhart, who was a personal friend and occasional flying companion. She was an excellent aerobatic pilot and use to thrill crowds @ air shows with her aerobatic routines. Prior to WWII she had plans to move to China and assist the fledgling Cantonese Air Force train pilots to fight the Japanese.