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Article: The Maker of Pilots: Willa B. Brown

The Maker of Pilots: Willa B. Brown

Willa B. Brown, Aviatrix and Maker of Pilots

Willa Beatrice Brown was born on January 22, 1906, to Eric Brown (an African American father) and Hallie Brown (her Native American mother) in Glasgow, Kentucky.

Soon the family moved to Indiana, a state with integrated schools where their children would have better educational opportunities.

It turns out that Willa loved learning and was a good student. She graduated from Wiley High School in Terre Haute, Indiana, followed by her attendance at and graduation from Indiana State Teachers College in 1927 with her bachelor's degree.

She then became a teacher at Emerson High School's Roosevelt Annex where she loved teaching there from 1927 through 1932.

Despite the difficult financial times in the U.S. and worldwide, Willa's hard work and dedication allowed her to thrive. During her career she held positions as a teacher, post office clerk, laboratory assistant, and secretary. 

Later she was employed by the Works Projects Administration (WPA) and moved to Chicago where she worked as a social worker.

Eventually she enrolled in Northwestern University and earned her Masters' Degree in Business Administration.

The Golden Age of Flight

The 1920s and 1930s marked the golden age of flight in America, marked by spectacular air shows, record-breaking flights, and larger-than-life aviators. 

In June of 1929 the Curtis-Wright Corporation was created following the merger of over a dozen aircraft manufacturing and distribution organizations, including the Curtiss Flying Service.

Curtis-Wright then formed the Curtis-Wright Aeronautical University in Chicago to provide provide academic and ground laboratory training to complement the flying instruction offered at the newly completed Curtiss-Reynolds Airport in Glenview.

Curtis-Reynolds airport in Glenview, Illinois in 1929

In addition the University offered courses in becoming an aircraft mechanic, an aviation administrator, or an aviation welder in addition to three separate pilot courses.

From the beginning, the Curtiss-Wright Aeronautical University promoted itself as an inclusive institution by enrolling any white student including girls; however, classes were not offered to African Americans.

In 1930 Cornelius Coffey, an automotive mechanic, and his friend John Robinson, also an automotive mechanic, enrolled in the Curtis-Wright Aeronautical University to become airplane mechanics.

When they showed up for their first class they were rejected because they were Black. However, Coffey's employer at the time encouraged Coffery to threaten to sue the school if they didn't let them enroll.

So, the University reconsidered their position and did let Coffey and Robinson enroll. Coffey graduated first in the class, followed by John Robinson who graduated second in the class.

The school then decided that if enough African Americans would apply to fill a class, then the University would agree to offer classes for African Americans, creating opportunities for them to contribute to advancing aviation.

Having completed the program and attaining their aviation mechanics license Coffey went on to being the first African American to hold both a pilots' and mechanics' license.

However, most airports would not allow African Americans to use their airfields, so Coffey and Robinson created the Challengers Air Pilots' Association (CAPA).

The growing group in 1933 then built the first airport for African American pilots on the south side of Chicago in Robbins, Illinois called Robin's Airport.

The Robbins Airport was damaged by weather, so the group moved a little further north to the Harlem Airfield.

Willa Brown Comes To Chicago

Willa Brown moved to Chicago in 1932 where she worked in a number of jobs.

In 1934 she met John C. Robinson who introduced her to the Challenger Air Pilots Association, a group of African American Pilots.

This ignited a love for aviation for Willa, who then enrolled in the Curtis-Wright Aeronautical University where she earned her Master Mechanic Certificate and her pilot's license.

Willa Brown then went on to set many firsts for African American women in aviation, following in the footsteps of Bessie Coleman, the first African American woman to get a pilot's license in the United States.

Willa married her insructor, Cornelius Coffey, and together founded the Coffey School of Aeronautics at the Harlem Airport in South Chicago. It was the first Black-owned and operated private flying academy of its sort in the United States.

On August 16, 1939, the National Negro Airmen Association of America (N.N.A.A.A.) was formed. Cornelius Coffey and Willa Brown, along with Enoc Waters, led the N.N.A.A.A. in its early years.

Shortly after its founding, Claude Barnett, the director of the Associated Negro Press, backed by Chauncey Spencer and Dale White, suggested the word Negro be dropped. As a result the group adopted its current name, the National Airmens Association of America.

Willa Beatrice Brown Takes Off

Now with her pilot's license and mechanics license, Willa helps her husband start the Coffey School of Aeronautics at the Harlem Airport in South Chicago.

Always inspired to push her boundries and fueled by the thrill of flying, Willa earned her master mechanic's certificte in 1935, followed three years later in 1938 by becoming the first African Amercan woman to earn both a U.S. pilot's license and a U.S. Commercial pilots license in 1939.

The U.S. government recognized that the United States might need pilots in the near future, and so the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP) was formed to train pilots.

The Coffey School of Aeronautics was one of seven African American flying schools chosen for the program, and that led to the training of Black aviation students who eventually were admitted into the Army Air Forces through the War Training Service Program (WTS) at these schools.

Lola Albright (left) and Willa Brown (right) pose in front of an airplane.

Willa Brown was directly responsible for training more than 200 future Tuskegee Airmen and instructors. Many of her students made up the 99th Fighter Squadron, also known as the "Red Tails" because the vetical stabilizers on their P-51 Mustangs were painted red.

Willa Brown's efforts promoted the awareness of African American pilots, and made the way for them to join the military, setting an example for others.

World War II

Of course Willa wanted to join the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program, but she was rejcted because of her race.

Not to be deterred, Willa and her husband Cornelius organized Civil Air Patrol (CAP) Squadron 613. Willa held the rank of Lieutenant, and was the adjutant of the organization.

During the war the CAP was called upon to fly anti-submarine patrols, border patrols, as well as perfroming courier services, all the time protecting the home front and freeing male pilots for the war effort.

After the war Willa andCornelius closed the Coffrey School of Aeronautics and were divorced.

In 1946 she ran for congress but lost to the Democratic incumbent, but continued to remain active as a voice for the civil rights struggle until her death at the age of 86 on July 18, 1996.

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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