|U.S. National Archives and Records Administration|
Following in the footsteps of Besse Coleman, Willa Beatrice Brown was the first African American woman to earn both a pilot’s license and a commercial license. Brown made significant contributions to both politics and the field of aviation during her lifetime. Brown was also the first African American woman to be commissioned as a lieutenant in the Civil Air Patrol and her efforts were responsible for Congress’ forming the renowned Tuskegee Airmen squadron, leading to the integration of the U.S. military service in 1948. Cornelius Coffey, Brown's first flight instructor and then husband, would become one of the Tuskegee Airmen.
Brown was born on January 22, 1906 in Glasgow, KY. Her career began in 1926 as a “commerce” teacher at the Roosevelt High School, Gary, Indiana, but she moved to Chicago to to work as a social worker. She felt like she had more to offer so she decided to learn to fly, studying with Coffey, a certified flight instructor and expert aviation mechanic at one of Chicago's racially segregated airports.
In 1935 she earned her Master Mechanic Certificate and began giving flight and ground school instruction at the field. One day in 1936, wearing her striking white jodhpurs, jacket and boots, she walked into the Chicago Defender newspaper office and made a professional pitch for publicity for an African-American air show to be held at Harlem Field. The advertising resulted in an attendance of between 200 and 300 people and showcased a number of talented black pilots in the Chicago area. Enoch Waters, the editor of the paper, covered the event himself and went up with Brown in a Piper Cub.