When people talk about women in aviation there is only one name that is spoken of, Amelia Earhart. Sure, she did everything "first," but does that make her the best? Most of the allure of Earhart is the mystery surrounding her fate. But there is another pilot in American History whose untimely death was surrounded by mystery as well. She is quite unknown to most, even to some aviation buffs. She was Elizabeth "Bessie" Coleman. She was the first African American female pilot and the first African American to have an international pilot license. What makes Coleman interesting is what she did with an airplane. Unlike Earhart, who flew record setting flights, Coleman was the female Evil Knievel of early 20th century flight. So, it's time that Coleman get the respect she's do and is mentioned in the same conversation as Amelia Earhart.
Bessie Colman was born January 26, 1892 in the small town of Atlanta, Texas. One of thirteen children, I guess there wasn't much for else for the Colman parents to do in Atlanta, her parenst were George and Susan. Colman spent the majority of her life in Waxahachie, TX. Coleman walked 4 miles, both ways, to her segregated schoolhouse. There she learned to read and write, she loved reading the classics and was an excellent math student. However, education was not the main focus in her life. Every year when the cotton harvest took place, she would join her family in harvesting, as it was major bump in their family income. However, at the age of 9 Coleman's life was turn upside down. Her father who was part Cherokee, became disgusted with the racial segregation that took place in Texas and left for the Indian Territory, present day Oklahoma. At 18, Bessie attended Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University but could only afford one year of schooling before returning back to Waxahachie. It would be in 1915 that she'd move to Chicago and her life would change in a direction the young girl from Texas could never imagine.
While in Chicago, Bessie worked at the White Sox Barber Shop as a manicurist. There she overheard stories from returning WWI vets, and mainly from return pilots. She became captivated and fell in love with the idea of flying. However, two thing stood in her way of achieving her dream. First, she was a woman and back then women couldn't "do'' anything. Second, she was black. To add insult to injury not even African American pilots would train her. Not being one that was easily discouraged, she took the advice of the publisher of the Chicago Defender, Robert Abbott, and went to France to be trained. She arrived in Paris in November of 1920. Once in Paris, she learned to fly in a Nieuport Type 82. She became a liscened pilot in June of '21. However, the license wasn't enough. She took lessons from French Air Force aces to improve her skills. She returned to the states in 1921 and was an automatic sensation.
In the cockpit, Coleman was fearless. A true showma...show-woman. She worked as a stunt flier and preformed in front of large but more importantly, paying crowds. She flew a few shows in the states, but returned to Europe in '22 to sharpen her skills and take her abilities to the next level. She trained and learned from some of the top pilots in France, the Netherlands and Germany. When she returned again to the states, this time she returned not as just the top female pilot but as one of the top pilots on the world. Better known to the public as Queen Bess, she was a part of every major flying event in the country. The media couldn't get enough of her and featured her at every chance they had. She was a fan favorite of both men and women, old and young but more importantly blacks and whites. She flew anything she could get her hands only, but she primarily flew the Curtiss JN-4 biplane, better known as the "Jenny." Her first major American show was in September of '22, held at Curtiss Field on Long Island. The event honored the 369th Infantray Regiment, which was an all African American regiment. Coleman was the main event and dubbed "the world's greatest woman flier."
After the success of the show on Long Island, Coleman preformed in another major American airshow at the Checkerboard Airdome, or better known today as Chicago's Midway Airport. At the show Coleman really stepped up her game. There she cemented herself as not just the greatest female daredevil but maybe one of the greatest daredevils to ever sit in a cockpit. She preformed figure eights, loops, and near-ground dips all to the delight of the crowd on the ground. Her reputation was growing as the best female pilot to ever take to the sky. She was absolutely fearless and not afraid of attempting new and innovative tricks. In February of '23 she crashed her plane at the Los Angeles Airshow and broke her leg and three ribs. However, because of this the press turned on Coleman and called her overly flamboyant and opportunistic... Umm did they realize she was a daredevil? Of course she is going to be overly flamboyant it comes with the job. It was at this point, after she had conquered the sky, it was time for her to share the joy of flying. Coleman wished to open her own flying school in the states and teach the next generation of adrenaline junkies, but there was a different plan for Queen Bess.
In April of 1926 Coleman purchased another Curtiss JN-4 and began to break it in for a show in Jacksonville. However, her family and friends did not feel comfortable with her flying it and seriously encouraged her not to fly it. It was Coleman and her mechanic William Wills in the plane that day and everything was going fine. It was after about 10 minutes into the flight that something wasn't right. The plane didn't pull out of a dive but instead begin to spin out of control. Coleman was thrown from the plane at about 2000 feet and died on impact. She was thrown because during the flight she was surveying in the land as her next big trick was to parachute from her plane. Wills also died as the plane plummeted to the ground and burst into flames. The cause of the crash, a wrench was left in the gearbox and jammed into it, ultimately causing Coleman's untimely death.
Elizabeth Coleman is one of the most overlooked women in, not only aviation history, but American History. She did things with an airplane that men then and not even now would be willing to do. But what is more impressive than being able to master flying a plane the way she did was her drive. Coleman never stopped pushing herself and never settled for anything. She always set the bar higher for herself every time she surpassed her set goals. She never gave up her childhood dream of amounting to something. Coleman is an under credit person in American History and it is a shame. She died at 34 years of age and it is unknown what doors she would have opened for not just women, but for African Americans as well. I think it might be fair to say that when we look at the timeline of women in aviation history that Coleman really paved the way for the most famous female pilot of all time Amelia Earhart. The truth is Coleman may be the greatest female pilot of all time, setting the standards not just for herself but for everyone that sat in a cockpit during that time. She is an American hero that has been forgotten for to long.