Trailblazing pilot Willa Brown will be posthumously inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in Dayton, Ohio on September 24, 2022.
Born in Glasgow, Kentucky in 1906, Brown graduated from Indiana State Teacher’s College in 1927 and received an M.B.A. from Northwestern in 1937. While enrolled at Northwestern, Brown sought greater challenges in life, apart from the limited career fields open to African Americans, and she decided to learn to fly.
Brown joined the Challenger Air Pilots Association on the south side of Chicago, a major center for African American aviation in the 1930s. Between 1934 and 1937 she received flight training with Cornelius Coffey, a certified flight instructor, and aviation mechanic. In 1935 she earned her Master Mechanic Certificate, training at Curtiss Wright Aeronautical University. By 1938 Brown was the first African American woman to earn a pilot’s license in the United States, followed by a commercial license in 1939.
Brown later married Coffey and they established the Coffey School of Aeronautics at the Harlem Airport in Chicago, where they trained black pilots and aviation mechanics. In 1939 she helped form the National Airmen’s Association of America (NAAA) and became a lobbyist for the integration of black pilots into a segregated Army Air Corps, as well as the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP). That same year the Coffey School was selected to provide a pool of black trainees for the U.S. Army Air Forces’ pilot training program at Tuskegee Institute. As the school’s director, Brown was instrumental in training more than 200 students who went on to become the famed Tuskegee airmen.
In 1941, Brown attained the rank of Lieutenant in the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) and became the first African American officer in the organization. In 1942 she was appointed war-training service coordinator for the Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA). Earning her mechanic’s license in 1943, Brown became the first woman in the United States to have both a mechanic’s and a commercial pilot’s license.
In 1976 Willa Brown became a member of the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Women’s Advisory Board in recognition of her contributions to aviation in the United States, and in 2002 Brown was named one of the Women in Aviation’s 100 Most Influential Women in Aviation and aeronautics.
Editor’s Note: Willa Brown was the first African American woman to obtain a pilot’s license in the U.S. Bessie Coleman was the first African American woman to obtain an international pilot’s license through the FAI (Federation Aeronautique Internationale) after receiving training in France.