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Article: Bessie Coleman Soars Across the Sky

aerial acrobatics

Bessie Coleman Soars Across the Sky

It is January 26, 1892, and the first cries of a beautiful baby girl bring tears to her mother. She shares her Joy with the father, George Coleman of Native American and African American descent.

That beautiful child was named Elizabeth "Bessie" Coleman, one of 13 children, and destined to change the aviation world in the 1920s and 1930s. which were the golden age of flight in America.

But these were hard times in Atlanta, Texas, and as sharecroppers the Coleman's spent a lot of time working the fields.

Sharecropping was a system by which a tenant farmer agrees to work an owner's land in exchange for living accommodations and a share of the profits from the sale of the crop at the end of the harvest.

The system emerged after the Civil War, when the southern economy lay in ruins.

So, young Bessie found herself working the fields until, at the age of six, she enrolled in school in Waxahachie, Texas. At the age of 12 she earned a scholarship to the Missionary Baptist Church School. It turned out that Bessie was a determined and bright student.

Each day would walk four miles to attend school in a one room, segregated schoolhouse. Lacking even the basic materials most students took for granted, Bessie none the less excelled in math and completed all eight grades.

Young Bessie, it turns out, was a very determined young lady who decided to save her money and enrolled at a university.

By the time she reached the age of 18 she had saved enough money to enroll in the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Langston, OK.

She was able to complete one term at the university before running out of money and returning to her home in Texas,

At the age of 23, in 1915, she moved to Chicago to stay with her older brother John were she became a manicurist at the White Sox Barber Shop on the south side of Chicago.

While working there she met a gentleman by the name of Robert Abbott who was the publisher of the Chicago Defender newspaper. It turns out that the Chicago Defender newspaper was the first black newpaper to reach over 100,000 subscribers. 

The paper published the news, but also had a health column and a full page of cartoons to boot!

Bessie Discovers Aviation

When World War One drew to a close many of the soldiers returned home including pilots who had flown in the war.  

During World War I these were the aircraft models they flew:

  • 1917 Albatros D-Va;
  • 1917 Fokker DR-1 Triplane;
  • 1918 Fokker D-VIII;
  • 1918 Morane A-I;
  • 1915 Nieuport 17;
  • 1918 Standard E-1;
  • 1917 Standard J-1;
  • 1918 Thomas Morse Scout.

Bessie's brother John had served in France during WWI remarked to Bessie one day "I know something that French women do that you will never do - fly!"

Never afraid to take a challenge, Bessie began meeting and listening to the flying war stories by pilots returning from WWI.

Bessie was hooked!

Bessie would listen to the flying stories of pilots returning home to the United States after the end of World War I. She decided that she would like to fly.

So, she took a second job in order to save money quickly in order to pursue her dream to become a pilot.  Unfortunately in those days no American flight school would admit African Americans, let alone an African American woman!

Robert Abbott recognized her desire to learn to fly and encouraged Bessie to study flying abroad in France. In order to help her along she received some financial backing from a banker, Jesse Binga, and also from the Chicago Defender.


Well, as one might expect, Bessie decided to take a crash course in French through the Berlizt language school.

By 1920 she stuck out for France and enrolled in the Caudron Brothers School of Aviation. This was a highly regarded flight school operated by the nenowned builders of World War I aircraft.

Caudron Brothers School of Aviation in France circa 1922

Soon she was flying a dual-contol trainer, the Nieuport 82

The Nieuport Type 82 Biplane Bessie learned to fly in.

During her training Bessie learned how to make banking turns, how to recover from tail spins, and how to loop the loop.

Bessie Coleman performing the loop the loop.


  • Engine: Le Rhone;
  • Power: 80 hp;
  • Crew: 2
  • Wingspan: 26 feet 9 inches;
  • Length: 25 feet 11 inches;
  • Height: 8 feet 2 inches;
  • Empty Weight: 1,047 pounds;
  • Gross Weight: 1,544 pounds;
  • Top Speed: 123 mph at 2,000 feet.

In 1921 Bessie achieved her dream of getting an international pilot's license becoming the first African American woman to do so. It took her seven months to achieve her goal.

Bessie Coleman's International Pilots License.

With her international pilot's license in hand, she understood that she needed more training to safely operate her aircraft to safely perform barnstorming stunts and some day to even own and operate her own flying school.

She went back to Europe early in 1922 and trained in France for two months followed by another ten weeks in Berlin, Germany, where she flew with German military pilot aces.

Upon her return to the United States both Black and White newspaper reporters greeted her in New York City and hailed her acheivements.

In January of 1923 Coleman acquired her first airplane, a Curtis JN-4 Jenny.

A Curtiss JN-4 similar to the one flown by Bessie Coleman, Aviatrix

Specifications of a Curtiss JN-4 Jenny:

  • Engine: Curtis OX-5 90 HP engine;
  • Wingspan: 43 feet 7 inches;
  • Length: 27 feet 4 inches;
  • Height: 9 feet 11 inches;
  • Empty weight: 1,390 pounds;
  • Gross weight:  1,920 pounds.

After the first exhibition of her flying skills, she dreamed of opening her own flying school.She continued barnstorming throughout the United States and Europe, wowing the audiences with flying skills.

Bessie was once asked how she handled racism and the other obstacles she encountered, and in typical Bessie fashion she said "I just refused to take no for an answer." What a great lesson for all of us!

In 1923 while flying to a small airport near Los Angeles her engine quit when she was only 300 feet in the air.  As a resulg of the crash Bessie was knocked unconcious, suffered a broken leg, three broken ribs, several cuts and other injuries.

It took over three months for her to recover, and it was two more years before she resumed her flying career.

On June 19th,1925 she resumed flying beginning in Houston, Texas performing motor stalls, dives, barrel rolls, figure eights, and loop the loops. She continued her barnstorming throughout Texas the remainder of the year.

The Fatal Accident

In September of 1925, Bessie Coleman finally made it to her hometown of Waxahachie, Texas. 

As was common at the time, Whites and African Americans sat in separate groups; however, Bessie would not put on her show unless all spectators came through the very same gate.

In January of 1926 travlled through Georga and then in Florida. With steadier income she purchased another Curtiss JN-4 Jenny stored at Love Field in Dallas, Texas.

On April 30, 1926, Bessie was in Jacksonville, Florida preparing to perform in an airshow using her new airplane, a Curtiss biplane. 

Bessie hired a white pilot named William D. Wills to take Bessie over Paxon Field in Jacksonville where she was to perform on May 1st for members of the cities Negro Welfare League.

Wills flew Paxon Fild at 3,000 feet with Bessie as a passenger so she could pick out the best landing site for her next days planned parachute jump. 

The aircraft inexplicably speed up, entered a spin, then turned over at 500 feet.

Sadly, Bessie Coleman had unfastened her seat belt to get a better look at the field below, fell out of the aircraft and plunged to her death. Wills crashed into a tree and was killed.

See The Video

A video on the life of Bessie Colman, Aviatrix.

Coleman's funeral in Jacksonville On May 2, 1926, Bessie Colman's funeral held, and over 5,000 people came to mourn her death. Many of the attendees were prominent members of black society in Jacksonville.

Three days later her funeral was held in Orlando at the Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church. was attended by more than 5,000 mourners, many who were prominent members of black society.

Her final journey took her back to Chicago, where more than 10,000 people filed past her coffin to pay final respects before her burial in the Lincoln Cemetery.

Following her death, Bessie Coleman Aero Clubs sprang up throughout the country and, on Labor Day in 1931, these clubs sponsored the first all-African-American Air Show, attracting more than 15,000 spectators.

That same year, a group of African-American pilots established a fly-over of her gravesite, and her name began appearing on buildings in the Harlem area of New York City.

William J. Powell, a lieutenant serving in an all-black unit during World War I, penned in his 1934 book, "Black Wings," "Because of Bessie Coleman, we have overcome that which was much worse than a racial barrier. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream."


There is little question but that Elizabeth "Bessie" Coleman inspired many of her fellow African Americans to "just refuse to take no as an answer."

Bessie Colman is credited with inspiring generations of African American pilots, including the famous WWII Tuskegee Airmen.

What a courageous young woman who "just wouldn't take no for an answer!"

I hope you enjoyed this trip through some of the history of aviation. If you enjoyed this trip, and are new to this newsletter, sign up to receive your own weekly newsletter here: Subscribe here!

Until next time, keep your eyes safe and focused on what's ahead of you, Hersch!


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