By, Captain Nancy Aldrich, aviation writer
She proudly walked into the office of “The Chicago Defender,” and announced, “I’m Willa Brown!” She was stunning in her white jodhpurs, jacket and boots. The noisy typewriter clacking stopped, and every head turned to face her. “I want to speak to Mr. Enoch Waters,” she said.
This young, black woman had everyone’s attention. Mr. Waters was curious to know who she was and what she wanted. He invited her into his office, where she promptly seated herself without being asked. He thought she probably was a model representing some new commercial product. He was shocked to find out what she wanted.
In a very business like manner, this young woman explained that she was an ‘aviatrix,’ and wanted publicity for a Negro Air Show at the Harlem Airport on Chicago’s southwest side.
Mr. Waters was familiar with the name “Colonel’ Hubert Fauntleroy Julian, the ‘Black Eagle,’ and ‘Colonel’ John Robinson, a black pilot who was in Ethiopia heading up Haile Salassie’s Air Force, but he knew of no other black pilots.
Willa explained that there were about 30 black pilots, both men and women. Some students, but several had their licenses. Cornelius Coffey was an expert aviation mechanic and held a commercial pilot’s license, and was a certified instructor, and was the leader of the group. She also explained that she held a limited commercial license.
Strikingly beautiful, brash, dauntless, outspoken, determined and smart, just some of the words used to describe Willa Brown. Mr. Waters was fascinated by her and decided to give the Negro Air Show publicity in his paper. He described the event, “Fascinated by both her and the idea of Negro aviators, I decided to follow up the story myself. Accompanied by a photographer, I covered the air show. About 200 or 300 other spectators attended, attracted by the story in the Defender. So happy was Willa over our appearance that she offered to take me up for a free ride. She was piloting a Piper Cub, which seemed to me, accustomed as I was to commercial planes, to be a rather frail craft. It was a thrilling experience, and the maneuvers—figure eights, flip-overs and stalls—were exhilarating, though momentarily frightening. I wasn’t convinced of her competence until we landed smoothly.”
Willa was born in Glasgow, Kentucky on January 22 (some give her birthdate as the 21st, or as late as the 26th),1906. She was born to Eric B. Brown, a minister, and Hallie Mae Brown. The family moved to Indianapolis, then to Terre Haute, where she received most of her schooling, graduating from Wiley High School.
She graduated from Indiana State University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Business, in 1927. She became the youngest high school teacher in Gary, Indiana, then a social worker in Chicago. She felt that her talents were not being used to their potential, and sought more challenges and adventures. She wanted to branch out into fields not normally open to African American women.
Willa had heard of Bessie ‘Queen Bess’ Coleman, and was inspired by her achievements. She decided to learn to fly, and took lessons from Cornelius R. Coffey, whom she later married. She joined the Challenger Air Pilot’s Association, and also the Chicago Girls Flight Club. She became the first African American woman to earn a pilot’s license in the United States. She received her pilot’s license on June 22, 1938. She was the first woman in the United States to earn both a mechanic’s license and a commercial pilot’s license. She also became an instructor. While earning her pilot’s licenses, she also earned her Master’s Degree in Business, from Northwestern University.
Willa was a bit of a self promoter, and participated in various flying events, such as The Bessie Coleman Memorial Flight, and air shows featuring entertaining flight demonstrations and aerobatics.
After they were married, she and Coffey started the Coffey School of Aeronautics at the Harlem Airport in Chicago. Along with Enoch Waters, they also formed the National Airmen’s Association of America, in 1939. The main goal of the association was to see black aviation cadets in the military. Willa was the national secretary, and the president of the Chicago Branch. As an activist for racial equality, she continually lobbied the government for the integration of black pilots into the segregated Army Air Corps, and the federal Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP). The CPTP had been established by the Civil Aeronautics Authority to provide a pool of pilots which could be used in national emergencies. When the government finally allowed ‘separate-but-equal’ flight training programs, the Coffey School was chosen for participation in the CPTP.
Later, the Coffey School was selected by the U. S. Army to provide black trainees pilot training program at Tuskegee Institute, in Tuskegee, Alabama. These pilots were later known as “The Tuskegee Airmen.” She eventually became the coordinator of war training service for the Civil Aeronautics Authority, and a member of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Women’s Advisory Board. She was also the first female African American Officer in the Civil Air Patrol.
The Coffey School of Aeronautics closed in 1945, after the end of World War II. However, Willa went on to help establish other flight schools. She was an activist, both in aviation and in politics. She ran for a seat in Congress in 1946, 1948, and 1950. While she did not win those elections, she was the first black woman to run for Congress.
In 1955, she married the Reverend J. H. Chappell, and became very active in the Westside Community Church in Chicago. She continued to teach in the public school system until 1971, and retired when she was sixty-five years old.
Willa Brown never had any children. She died of a stroke in Chicago on July 18, 1992. The world lost a very elegant, important, and hard working woman. She left the world a much better place than she found it, and we should be grateful for all her contributions!