9 Influential African Americans that Changed Aviation

Bessie Coleman

Image: Public Domain

As the first black woman to hold an international pilot’s license, Bessie Coleman was a pioneer for both African Americans and women in aviation. After hearings flying stories from men returning from the war, Coleman wanted to fly, but couldn’t find a place in the United States that would allow her to. So she moved to France, where she completed a pilot’s license in seven months. Upon returning to the states, Coleman flew as a stunt pilot. She was killed in an accident at age 34. 

Eugene Bullard (1895-1961)

Image: Public Domain

Eugene Bullard was the first African-American military pilot, and one of only two black combat pilots who flew in World War I. Bullard was born in Georgia but apparently stowed away to Scotland to escape racism and slavery. After visiting Paris, he decided to settle there and when World War I started, he enlisted in the 1st Regiment of Foreign Legion in France. He earned a pilot certificate in 1917 and attempted to join the Lafayette Escadrille but didn’t get in so instead he joined the Lafayette Flying Corps.

After the war, Bullard went back to Paris, where he worked as a nightclub manager and found himself spying on the Germans for the French during World War II. He eventually made his way back to the states, where he worked odd jobs and lived in poverty until his death in 1961. 

Cornelius Coffey (1903-1994)

Image: Public Domain

Cornelius Coffey was the first African American to establish an aviation school in the United States. He was married to pilot and business partner Willa Brown.  His school, The Coffey School of Aeronautics in Chicago, was the only non-university aviation school to obtain status as part of the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP). He became a true pioneer for promoting aviation in the African American community in Chicago, and served as the first President of the National Airmen’s Association of America. Coffey earned the Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award from the FAA and also has a fixed named after him: The "Cofey" fix over Lake Calumet. And Coffey was also responsible for inventing a carburetor heat system, which is still in use in small aircraft today. 

Willa Brown (1906-1992)

Image: Public Domain

Under the mentorship of Bessie Coleman and flight instructor Cornelius Coffey, Willa Brown became the first female African American to obtain a pilot certificate in the United States. After marrying Coffey, the two of them opened the Coffey School of Aeronautics in Chicago, where they instructed black pilots and maintainers. In 1939, along with Enoch Waters and Coffey, Brown started the National Airmen's Association of America in order to help get black pilots into the military.

Brown lobbied for the involvement of blacks in the U.S. military, and the Coffey Schools of Aeronautics was eventually chosen to train pilots for the Tuskegee Institute.

In addition to her work toward eliminating segregation in aviation, Brown was the first black female commercial pilot and the first female African American officer in the Civil Air Patrol. She also served on the FAA’s Women’s Advisory Board.

Grover Nash (1911-1970)

Photo: Public Domain

The first black pilot to fly the U.S. Mail, Grover Nash earned his pilot’s license in 1938. He was a founding member of the National Airmen's Association of America and was a member of the Challenger Air Pilots Association.

Benjamin O. Davis (1912-2002)

Photo: Public Domain

Following in the footsteps of his father, who was the first African American general in the army, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. became the first African American general in the United States Air Force. He was also the commander of the Tuskegee Airmen. Davis retired as a Lieutenant General, but President Clinton promoted him to four-star general in 1998. He died just four years later, in 2002. A Red Tail P-51 flew over during his funeral. 

Major Robert Lawrence (1935-1967)

Photo: USAF

Robert Lawrence always excelled in academics. An honor student from Chicago, Lawrence graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Chemistry from Bradley University at age 20. He then went on to commission in the Air Force Reserves and by age 21, was an Air Force Pilot. By 31, he had completed a Doctorate in Physical Chemistry from Ohio State University and by 32, had completed test pilot school and had been selected to be an astronaut, making him the first African American astronaut. He flew several test flights in the F-104 and X-15, and in 1967, before he had an opportunity to fulfill a mission to space that he was selected for, Major Lawrence died on a test flight in the F-104. 

The Tuskegee Airmen (1940-1952)

Photo: Public Domain

The Tuskegee Airmen were the first black pilots to enter the military, and the first to fight in World War II.  The group of men was segregated, completing all of their training at the Tuskegee Army Air Field. The first five black cadets graduated from the Tuskegee Army Air Field program in 1942. By the end of the war, 996 pilots had successfully completed more than 15,000 combat sorties. The all-black group earned over 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, and their success paved the way for African Americans in aviation, and the eventual desegregation of the American military. 

Dr. Mae Jemison (1956-)

Photo: NASA

In 1992, aboard the Space Shuttle Endeavor, Dr. Mae Jemison became the first African American female to travel to space. She was selected to join the astronaut corps after serving in the Peace Corps from 1985-1987. Jemison went to Stanford at age 16, graduate with a degree in both chemical engineering and African American studies. She then attended Cornell University and received a Doctor of Medicine degree. She now holds nine honorary doctorate degrees. She left NASA in 1993 to pursue her own company, the Jemison Group.