Willa Brown: Trailblazer for CAP, 'Ninety-Nines'
For Women's History Month, Civil Air Patrol honors Willa Beatrice Brown, an early member of both CAP and "the Ninety-Nines.” Established in 1929 by 99 women pilots, Ninety-Nines Inc., International Organization of Women Pilots, promotes advancement of aviation through education and scholarships.
CAP’s national artist, Maj. Ron Finger, has depicted a historic aircraft like one Brown flew training U.S. Army Air Forces pilots during World War II.
Willa Beatrice Brown (1906-1992) was an aviation pioneer who broke race and gender barriers. The first African American woman to earn a private pilot’s license in the United States, Brown was a lifelong advocate for gender and racial equality in flight and in the military.
Brown and her husband, Cornelius Coffey, established the Coffey School of Aeronautics, which trained hundreds of pilots and aircraft mechanics. Several Coffey School graduates became the first flight instructors for the 99th Pursuit Squadron, the pioneering members of the Tuskegee Airmen.
She became a lobbyist for integration of Black pilots into a segregated U.S. Army Air Corps as well as the federal Civilian Pilot Training Program. The CPTP system was established by the Civil Aeronautics Authority to provide thousands of citizens with pilot training at select colleges and universities, including six that were historically Black.
Brown also became the coordinator of war-training service for the CAA and later a member of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Women’s Advisory Board. In 1942, Brown and Coffey seized the opportunity to integrate the uniformed aviation community in Civil Air Patrol with the establishment of the Illinois Wing’s 111th Flight Squadron.
With 25 b flyers from the Coffey School forming the squadron’s core, Coffey commanded the unit with flight instructor William Paris as executive officer and Brown as unit adjutant. Later that year, the 111th was redesignated as Squadron 613-6 with Coffey commissioned as first lieutenant and Brown as second lieutenant.
Brown and Coffey’s Squadron 613-6 legacy lives on in the Cornelius R. Coffey Composite Squadron, based in Chicago’s Park Forest area.
Brown was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2022.
The Ryan ST-A / YPT-16 became the first monoplane the Army Air Corps acquired as a primary trainer. The Air Corps ordered 15 YPT-16s after purchasing a single Ryan STA-1 in 1939 for testing as the XPT-16. From 1940-1942, the Air Corps bought nearly 1,200 more similar Ryan trainers as PT-20s, PT-21s, and PT-22s.
The YPT-16 had a metal fuselage and wooden wing spars with fabric covering and external wire bracing. Originally powered by Menasco L-365 in-line engines, all but one were later reequipped with Kinner R-440 radial engines.
Pictured is a Ryan STA withdrawn from the YPT-16 production run. Never owned by the Air Corps, it flew under civilian registration. Like the trainers she flew, it is shown here crewed by Brown and one of her students, a future Tuskegee Airman. Ryan STA/YPT-16 No. 22 can be seen at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force, located with the National Aviation Hall of Fame at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.