Willa Brown: Pioneer for Female & African American Aviation
Lt. Col. Carlos Montague
CAP recognizes Women's History Month with a profile of aviator and civil rights pioneer Willa Brown.
There are many pioneering names in African American aviation. Figures like Eugene Bullard, Bessie Coleman, Charles Alfred Anderson, John Forsythe, Thomas Allen, Janet Harmon Bragg and Herman Banning all set out against the odds of social and racial injustice, to achieve excellence.
And then there’s Willa Beatrice Brown Chappell, a pioneer for both women’s equality and civil rights.
Brown was born in Glasgow, Kentucky, in 1906 to a biracial family with a Native American mother and an African American father. Understanding that education was important, Brown graduated from the Indiana State Normal School, now Indiana State University, majoring in commerce and earning her bachelor’s degree in business.
Later she would receive a master’s degree in business administration from Northwestern University and became a teacher at Roosevelt High School in Gary, Indiana. Eventually she moved to Chicago and became a social worker.
“Any time you are a first in anything, that’s a challenge. Willa Brown was the first African American woman in the United States to get a private pilot license, get licensed and certified as a mechanic, and earn a commercial pilot’s license,” said the Rev. Sandra Campbell, a former manager with the Federal Aviation Administration.
During a time when women were generally not expected to be professionals, she was probably one of the first to step out and be herself, fighting through the same obstructions as most African Americans of that period.
Brown later met Cornelius Coffey, who sparked her love of aviation. She worked with Coffey in his flying school, training under his encouragement and later marrying him. The two co-founded the first private pilot training academy on the south side of Chicago, the Coffey School of Aeronautics, owned and operated by African Americans.
When the couple started the aviation school, they taught anyone who wanted to learn to fly and support aviation. They were still operating in a segregated environment, so there weren’t a lot of opportunities.
Brown got the idea that maybe the government could be convinced to allow more blacks to get pilot’s licenses and even serve in the military as pilots. She became a catalyst for integrating the armed services.
Those who knew her said her education and no-nonsense attitude were legendary. She was tough but fair. An excellent administrator and instructor, she challenged men much taller and significantly larger than her, encouraging them to get the task done because she took a keen interest in their success.
She trained hundreds of pilots and was selected by the U.S. Army Air Corps to provide black trainees for the Pilot Training Program at the Tuskegee Institute, many of whom went on to become Tuskegee Airmen.
Brown dedicated her life to helping others, and not just in the field of aviation. She was active in all aspects of her community, working to help people realize their dreams and strive for excellence, demonstrating that you could do anything and be anything that you set your mind to be.
During World War II, she became the first African American officer in Civil Air Patrol and also served on the newly formed U.S. Aviation Board Commission.
Brown died July 18, 1992, at age 86.