The early days of flying was an age for pioneers and none more so than Bessie Coleman who was both the first woman of African-American descent and the first of Native American descent to hold a pilot’s licence.
Coleman was born in 1892 in Atlanta, Texas, the daughter of sharecropper George Coleman, who was mostly Cherokee and part African-American, and his African-American wife Susan.
The family moved to Waxahachie, Texas, when Coleman was two and in 1901 her father had left home to return to Oklahoma. The area was mostly for its cotton production and when she was eighteen Coleman used her savings to enrol at the Oklahoma Colored Agricultural and Normal University in Langton but her money ran out after just one term and she returned home.
In 1916 Coleman moved to Chicago to live with her brothers. There she worked as a manicurist at the White Sox Barber Shop where she heard the stories told by the pilots who had flown during the First World War and it was this that made her determined to learn to fly. She took a second job in a chilli parlour to finance her ambition but the problem was that American flying schools would not accept either women or blacks.
The African-American publisher of the Chicago Defender, Robert Abbot, encouraged Coleman to study abroad and after taking French language classes she travelled to Paris in 1920. There she learned to fly in a Nieuport 82 biplane and in 1921 she earned her international aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.
Coleman became a media sensation when she returned to America but with civil aviation still in its infancy the only way she could make a living as a professional pilot was as a barnstorming stunt flyer. That required more advanced skills than she possessed and she again returned to Europe for further training where she also met the aircraft designer Anthony Fokker.
Back in America, she began her career as Queen Bess and appeared at her first air show at an event honouring veterans of the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment at Curtiss Field, Long Island. The Chicago Defender billed her as ‘the world’s greatest woman flyer’ and the show also featured aerial displays by eight other ace pilots and a jump by black parachutist Hubert Julian.
Six weeks later she returned to Chicago to deliver a stunning demonstration of daredevil manoeuvres including figures of eight, loops and near-ground dips to a large and enthusiastic crowd at the Checkerboard Airdrome.
But while Coleman enjoyed the danger and the cheering crowds, her real ambition was to open her own flying school for black aviators. That would require finance and she opened a beauty parlour in Orlando, Florida, to earn extra money.
Coleman was offered a role in the feature film titled Shadow and Sunshine to be financed by the African-American Seminole Film Producing Company which she accepted thinking that it would help to advance her career. However, she withdrew when she learned that the opening scene depicted her in the stereotypical white view of an aspiring black person with her dressed in tattered clothes and with a stick and a pack on her back.
Sadly, Coleman would not achieve her ambition. In 1926 she had bought a Curtiss aeroplane which had been poorly maintained. She took to the air in the plane which was piloted by her mechanic. She hadn’t fastened her seatbelt because she was planning a parachute jump and when the plane suddenly went into a dive and spin she was thrown clear at 2,000 feet. Her mechanic was also killed when the plane crashed and it later transpired that a wrench used to service the engine had jammed the controls.