When I visited the Chanute Air Museum in Rantoul, Illinois last summer, I mentioned in the blog entries that followed that I’d probably be doing a story on Illinois aviator Cornelius Coffey.  Since this is Black History Month, it seems like a good time to make good on my intentions.
     Like so many young American men in the early 1900s, Cornelius Coffey was bitten by the aviation bug early and hard.  He had his first airplane ride in his home state of Alabama in 1916 when he was just 13.  However, unlike his white counterparts, his skin color set up a lot of obstacles to overcome in his quest to become an aviator.
Cornelius Coffey
      Coffey moved to Chicago in 1925 to attend auto mechanics school.  He and a buddy named John Robinson both wanted to fly, but the local fight schools would not accept black students.  Highly motivated, they built a one-seater airplane – powered by a motorcycle engine – and taught themselves to leave the surly bonds of earth (if you don’t know where that last phrase comes from, click here for a wonderful poem about the grandness of flight.)
      Both men completed auto mechanics school and were employed by Emil Mack, a Chevrolet dealer who happened to be white.  Coffey and Robinson felt the next step in their plan to work in the aviation field would be to learn more about flight and airplane mechanics, so in 1929 they applied to and were accepted into the Curtiss Wright School of Aviation in Chicago.  Even though they had prepaid their tuition, they were turned away when the school discovered they were black.  Although the school offered to refund the tuition, Mack threatened to sue the school if the two were not admitted and the school backed down.
       Coffey and Robinson graduated from Curtiss Wright first and second in their class two years later in 1931.   Coffey also took and passed the federal aviation mechanics exam within weeks of graduating.  In an interesting turn of events, the Curtiss Wright School of Aviation invited them back to teach all-black classes, which they did. 
       Even with this acknowledgment of their skills, their skin color continued to trump their knowledge level, and only Akers airport would let them in to fly and work on aircraft on their own time. When Akers soon closed, they teamed up with other black aviation enthusiasts – and a couple of white pilots who had flown out of Akers – to form the Challenger Air Pilots Association.  The “Challenger” referred to the Curtiss R-600 Challenger, a 6-cylinder air-cooled radial aircraft engine of the era.
The Curtiss R-600 Challenger

         Unable to find an airstrip where they could all fly from, the group bought raw land in Robbins, an all-black town outside of Chicago.  Working together, they cleared the land and did some rough leveling to make an air strip.  They even built a rudimentary hangar for their three aircraft.  The airstrip was used for about a year before a fierce thunderstorm destroyed the hangar and flipped the airplanes.  The group was back to square one.

     While the Robbins “airport” was operating, a man named Fred Schumacher had visited it.  Liking what he saw, he invited the group to relocate to 140 acres his brother had purchased in Oak Lawn for the purpose of developing his own airport.  The Challenger group initially turned down the offer but after the storm, they approached Fred Schumacher to see if the offer still held.
     The Schumacher land was already looking like an airfield, with four airstrips outlined in the sod. There were even an office and hangar in place along Harlem Avenue.  Schumacher agreed to rent the lower end of the airport to the Challenger group but insisted they stay there and not mix with the white pilots, whose facility was at the other end of the airport.  So it was that while the pilots all shared the air, they were divided by skin color on the ground.
This is an aerial shot of Harlem Airport taken in 1951.  I was intrigued by the “star” shape made by all of the airstrips – it must have be interesting for pilots to figure out where the other active aircraft were located, considering all of the airstrips crossed the middle.
      The airport was now named Harlem Airport and Coffey was soon asked to do recertifications of white pilots’ airplanes after overhauls.  By now, he and Robinson had parted company and Coffey was able to earn a living as an airplane mechanic at Harlem. He also opened the Coffey Flying School.
     Knowing what it was like to be discriminated against because of skin color, he taught blacks and whites together and even had a female in class once in a while.  In 1938, one of those females was Willa Brown, who would marry Coffey and play a role in the training of future Tuskegee Airmen.

     Next week’s blog will continue the story of Cornelius Coffey and his wife Willa Brown Coffey, America’s first commercially licensed female African-American pilot. 

We’re On The Road!
     Next week also marks the beginning of the CAF Red Tail Squadron’s “season” with the first stop being Hank Aaron Stadium in Mobile, Alabama.  The RISE ABOVE Traveling Exhibit will be open to the public there from 2 to 4:30 p.m.  Wednesday through Friday, February 6-8.  The Traveling Exhibit will host numerous school groups in the mornings.

The CAF Red Tail Squadron is a volunteer-driven 501c3 non-profit organization that operates under the auspices of the Commemorative Air Force. For more information, please visit redtail.org.


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