Last week’s blog subject was Illinois aviation pioneer Cornelius Coffey.  He met this week’s blog subject, Willa Brown, when she was his student at the Curtiss-Wright School of Aviation in Chicago.
     When she decided to learn to fly, she enrolled at his Coffey Flying School at Harlem Airport just outside of Chicago and became the first black woman to earn her pilot’s license in the United States.  [Chicagoan Bessie Coleman was the first black woman to EVER earn a pilot’s license, but she had to go to France in order to do it as no stateside flight school would enroll her.] A teacher with a master’s degree in Business Administration, Brown soon partnered with Coffey in life by marrying him and in business by helping him with his flying school.
     It was the late ’30s and war drums in America were starting to beat.  The U.S. Army Air Corps knew it did not have enough pilots to fight in a war so Congress and President Roosevelt touted the idea that civilian flight schools should train future pilots.  In 1939, the Coffeys, along with friends Dale White and Enoc Waters started the National Airmen’s Association as a way to help give “official” legitimacy to the push to include black pilots in the upcoming civilian flight training programs.
     In late 1939, the new pilot training sites for civilians – formally known as the Civilian Flight Training Program – were announced; seven were designated for black students.  Of those, the only one that was not on a college campus was at Harlem Airport.
     The newly renamed Coffey School of Aeronautics kicked into high gear.  Cornelius would direct flight training and maintain the aircraft used for training (two purchased Piper Cubs and two WACO PT-14s on loan from the Curtiss-Wright School of Aviation).  Willa would coordinate the entire program and also teach ground school at a local high school.
     Each trainee received 35 hours of flight time.  The Coffey and Tuskegee schools were the only black programs offering all four levels of instruction – basic and advanced flight training, cross-country flight training and flight instruction training.  About 200 students trained at Coffey over a seven-year period
       [I was able to find the names of just two of the Coffey students who would go on to military flight training at Tuskegee:  Quentin Smith trained for the B-25 program and never saw battle because that bomber group was not deployed.  He remained an aviation enthusiast even as he earned a doctorate in education.  He worked in various educational systems and also served as president of the Gary (Ind.) Regional Airport Authority.  Bev Dunjill got into the Tuskegee program just as the war was ending.  After mustering out, he reenlisted in 1949 and was an F-86 jet combat instructor during the Korean war. ]
     Postwar, the Coffeys ended their marriage, but continued to contribute as individuals.  Cornelius kept working at the Harlem Airport, but his heart remained in the classroom teaching young people so he spent the following decades teaching aviation mechanics in high school and at a local area college.  Willa had earned her commercial pilot’s license in 1939.  She earned her aviation mechanics license in 1943, thus becoming the first woman – never mind black woman – in the United States to have both of those licenses.  Perhaps because of her successful work with the CFTP and Civil Air Patrol, she developed a taste for politics and decided to run for Congress, losing both times.
     Cornelius Coffey passed away in 1994 and Willa Brown Coffey Chappell died in 1992.
Postscript:   The Cornelius R. Coffey Aviation Education Foundation was established at the American Airlines Maintenance Academy in Chicago to help train a younger generation of high school and college students interested in aviation. It is a fitting legacy to this intrepid American aviator and all who helped him reach so many young flyer-wannabes.


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