Bessie Coleman

She beat the odds and inspired others to take flight.

All illustrations by Ario Murti

The crowd looked to the sky in amazement. It was 1922, and high above a New York airfield, a small plane flew in a figure eight-shaped path. Suddenly, it plunged downward. Seconds before the plane would have hit the ground, it swerved back up into the sky. The crowd chanted the pilot’s nickname: Brave Bessie!

As an aviator, Bessie Coleman was famous for her daring stunts. But as the first Black American woman to get a pilot’s license, she was also a pioneer. 

The crowd looked up in amazement. It was 1922, and a small plane flew high above a New York airfield. The plane made a figure eight-shaped path. Suddenly, it plunged downward. Seconds before the plane would have hit the ground, it swerved back up into the sky. The crowd chanted the pilot’s nickname: Brave Bessie!

As an aviator, Bessie Coleman was famous for her daring stunts. But as the first Black American woman to get a pilot’s license, she was also a pioneer. 

Dreaming Big

Coleman was born in Texas on January 26, 1892—more than a decade before the flight of the first airplane. Her father was Black and Native American, and her mother was also Black. The family was poor and picked cotton to earn money. From the time she was a child, Coleman hated this backbreaking work.

Dreaming of a better life, Coleman moved to Chicago, Illinois, to live with her older brothers in 1915. Her brother John would later tease her about the female pilots he had seen while stationed in France during World War I (1914-1918).

“He kidded her and said, ‘You can’t do that,’” says Russell Lee of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. “She took it as a personal challenge.”

To other people, that challenge might have seemed impossible. At the time, Black people in the U.S. were shut out of many schools and jobs. Black women had even fewer opportunities than Black men did.

Coleman was born in Texas on January 26, 1892. That was more than a decade before the flight of the first airplane. Her father was Black and Native American, and her mother was also Black. The family was poor and picked cotton to earn money. From the time she was a child, Coleman hated this exhausting work.

Dreaming of a better life, Coleman moved to Chicago, Illinois, in 1915. She went to live with her older brothers. Her brother John would later tease her about the female pilots he had seen while stationed in France during World War I (1914-1918).

“He kidded her and said, ‘You can’t do that,’” says Russell Lee of the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. “She took it as a personal challenge.”

To other people, that challenge might have seemed impossible. At the time, Black people in the U.S. were shut out of many schools and jobs. Black women had even fewer opportunities than Black men did.

Taking to the Sky

Still, Coleman was determined to become a pilot. None of the pilots she contacted in the U.S. would accept her as a student, so she applied to a flight school in France. There, in 1921, Coleman earned a pilot’s license that allowed her to fly anywhere in the world. 

She returned to the U.S. with a new dream: to open a flight school for Black women. While she worked toward that goal, Coleman became a barnstormer, a pilot who travels the country performing dangerous stunts.

“She realized the impact she could have on other people by doing this,” says Lee.

During her barnstorming shows, Coleman flew a type of plane that was common at the time. It had no roof and two seats, with the pilot sitting in the back. She dazzled audiences with dangerous stunts like loop-the-loops. She even walked on the wing of her plane and parachuted to the ground while a co-pilot took the controls. 

In 1923, shortly after taking off for a planned show, Coleman crashed. Though she was badly injured, she didn’t let that stop her. 

“Tell them all that as soon as I can walk I’m going to fly!” Coleman wrote in a telegram.

Still, Coleman was determined to become a pilot. None of the pilots she contacted in the U.S. would accept her as a student. She applied to a flight school in France. There, in 1921, Coleman earned a pilot’s license that allowed her to fly anywhere in the world. 

She returned to the U.S. with a new dream. She wanted to open a flight school for Black women. While she worked toward that goal, Coleman became a barnstormer. These are pilots who travel the country performing dangerous stunts.

“She realized the impact she could have on other people by doing this,” says Lee.

During her barnstorming shows, Coleman flew the type of plane that was common at the time. It had no roof and two seats. The pilot sat in the back. She dazzled audiences with dangerous stunts like loop-the-loops. She even walked on the wing of her plane and parachuted to the ground while a co-pilot took the controls. 

In 1923, shortly after taking off for one of her shows, Coleman crashed. Though she was badly injured, she didn’t let that stop her. 

“Tell them all that as soon as I can walk I’m going to fly!” Coleman wrote in a telegram.

Inspiring Others

She later returned to flying, but tragedy struck on April 30, 1926. She was a passenger in a plane flown by a co-pilot. A wrench got caught in the engine, causing the aircraft to flip over and nose-dive to the ground. Sadly, Coleman and her co-pilot were killed. 

Although she didn’t live long enough to open her flight school, Coleman still became an inspiration to countless aviators who came after her.

She later returned to flying, but tragedy struck on April 30, 1926. She was a passenger in a plane flown by a co-pilot. A wrench got caught in the engine. This caused the aircraft to flip over and nose-dive to the ground. Sadly, Coleman and her co-pilot were killed. 

Although she didn’t live long enough to open her flight school, Coleman still became an inspiration to countless aviators who came after her.

1. Why is Bessie Coleman described as a pioneer?

2. Why did Coleman move to France as a young woman?

3. What happened to Coleman in 1923? What does her reaction reveal about her?

1. Why is Bessie Coleman described as a pioneer?

2. Why did Coleman move to France as a young woman?

3. What happened to Coleman in 1923? What does her reaction reveal about her?

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