Badassery: First Black Aviatrix in US
Each week we highlight badasses throughout history doing the unthinkable in celebration of human potential! This Week: Bessie Coleman, who was the first black woman in the U.S. to earn her pilot’s license.
Bessie Coleman, also known as “Brave Bessie” and “Queen Bess,” was a pioneering aviatrix who was the first black woman in the U.S. to earn her pilot’s license, in 1921.
Coleman trained in France after struggling to find a U.S flight school willing to give her the time of day. She returned to Chicago with her license in 1922 and began traveling around the country doing air shows and exhibitions.
Coleman quickly gained the respect of other aviators for her technical maneuvers at exhibitions. She also became a crowd pleaser with tricks such as the loop-the-loop and tailspins. She was a performer who would often parachute to the ground and walk on the plane’s wings while aloft. During one stunt in Texas, a professional parachutist decided not to leave the plane, so she impromptu turned the controls over to another pilot, walked out onto the wing, and jumped herself.
Coleman was “as much an actress as she was a pilot,” writes Doris Rich in her 1993 biography, Queen Bess, Daredevil Aviator. “Being Bessie, she landed in the center of the crowd.”
Prior to her career in aviation, Coleman had been working as a manicurist on Chicago’s South Side in 1919. She was partly inspired to pursue aviation after her brother returned from France during World War 1 and noted that black women there had more opportunities and could even fly planes.
Coleman’s pioneering career came to an end in 1926 at the age of 34. One day before a scheduled air show, she was testing a new plane when a wrench got caught in the controls and sent it into an uncontrollable tailspin. She was ejected from her cockpit and fell several hundred feet to her death.
Her perseverance has inspired aviators, black adventurers and young girls for more than 100 years. Once while still at flight school, she witnessed an accident that killed another student. She said it was “a terrible shock” to her nerves, but that “she never lost them.”
She also once nosedived 300-feet near Los Angeles after her motor stalled. While her plane was destroyed, she survived with a broken leg and fractured ribs and told the doctor to patch her up so she could get back to the show. (It took her two years to recover from the incident).
Coleman was a staunch advocate of equality. She considered playing the lead in a film based on her life story, but turned it down after learning the film was going to portray her character in rags. She told Billboard Magazine at the time: “No Uncle Tom stuff for me!”
Many years later in 1995, she was honored with a U.S. postage stamp in 1995.