Black excellence

‪Willa Beatrice Brown was the first African American woman to earn her pilot’s licence in the United States, aged 31‬

PIONEERING: Willa Beatrice Brown

PIONEERING: Willa Beatrice Brown

MEET WILLA Beatrice Brown, the first African American woman to earn her pilot’s licence in the United States, aged 31.

She was also the first African-American woman to run for the United States Congress, the first African-American officer in the US Civil Air Patrol, and the first woman in the United States to have both a pilot’s licence and a mechanic’s licence.

Two years later she married her former flight instructor, Cornelius Coffey, and they co-founded the Cornelius Coffey School of Aeronautics, the first black-owned and operated private flight training academy in the U.S.

She trained hundreds of pilots, several of whom would go on to become Tuskegee Airmen.

In 1939, the Coffey school was awarded a contract by the Federal Government to train Americans to fly airplanes in case of a national emergency.

Later that year, Brown became a co-founder of the National Airmen’s Association of America.  She also joined the Challenger Air Pilot’s Association, the Chicago Girls Flight Club, and purchased her own airplane all between 1939 and 1940.

After the Coffey School closed in 1945, Brown remained politically and socially active in Chicago.

In 1946, Willa, a Republican, also became the first African American woman to run for Congress.

Although she lost to the Democrat incumbent, William Levi Dawson, she remained politically active.  She supported various causes throughout her political career, including the racial and gender integration of the US Army Air Corps.

In 1972, in recognition of her contributions to aviation in the United States as a pilot, an instructor, and an activist, Ms. Brown-Chappell was appointed to the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Women’s Advisory Board.  Willa B. Brown-Chappell died on July 18, 1992 at the age of 86 in Chicago.


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