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Breaking Down Barriers: The Life & Times Of US Aviator Bessie Coleman

Alexander Mitchell from Simple Flying – Reports

Bessie Coleman was not only a trailblazer for women in aviation, but also for all people of color.


  • In the 1920s, Bessie Coleman became a pioneer in the aviation industry by earning her pilot’s license.
  • Despite racial and gender discrimination, Coleman specialized in stunt flying and became one of America’s first female barnstormers.
  • Coleman tragically lost her life in a test flight accident, but her legacy remains strong, inspiring aviators from marginalized communities for decades.

In the 1920s, earning a pilot’s license as a black woman was among the most impossible tasks. Despite all the hurdles that stood in her way, Bessie Coleman achieved this feat and defied all odds.

But Coleman’s story extends far beyond the fact that she simply earned a pilot’s license. In fact, she was undoubtedly one of the industry’s pioneers, paving a path for generations of aviators to follow. In this article, we will take a closer look at Bessie Coleman’s life and accomplishments.

Early life
According to the National Air and Space Museum, Bessie Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas. Her father, George, was of Cherokee origin and would leave Bessie and her mother, Susan, at a young age.

Despite a challenging upbringing, Bessie found a stable job in Chicago, where she became a manicurist in a salon. She worked in this capacity until the age of 27, when she began to desire a different, more exciting lifestyle.

An opportunity arose when Bessie learned from her brother, a veteran of the First World War, that women in France had become pilots. But in the United States, where black men were not even permitted to fly, let alone black women, Coleman’s dreams seemed extremely far afield.

Flight career
Coleman’s desire to fly would take her to France, where she was accepted to the highly-regarded Caudron Brothers Aviation school. There, according to, Coleman would go on to earn her pilot’s license in 1921.

Bessie now had a pilot’s license, but this did not necessarily mean she could earn a living flying, as both women and people of color in the United States were still heavily restricted from the industry. Coleman’s first idea was to open her own flight school, but she later backed away from the concept.

Eventually, Coleman came to specialize in stunt flying and found a living as one of America’s first female barnstormers. She performed tricks and aerial stunts across the United States, completing the first public flight by a woman in the country in 1921. Coleman also became an expert in parachuting and participated in demonstrations at different shows.

Death and legacy
On April 30th, 1926, Bessie Coleman’s story came to a tragic conclusion when she piloted a test flight with a mechanic named William Willis. According to Women’s History, the cascade of events that occurred next tragically led both to lose their lives.

At roughly 3,000 feet, a wrench somehow fell into the engine, causing a catastrophic loss of control. The aircraft inverted, and Coleman, who was not wearing a seatbelt at the time, fell out of the plane. Willis would go on to crash the plane a few thousand feet away, and neither survived the incident.

Today, Bessie Coleman’s legacy remains strong, and her achievements inspired aviators from the African American and Native American communities for decades to come. Her life has been honored in a number of different ways, including the US Mint issuing a commemorative quarter featuring the aviation legend.

Every year since 1931, the Challenger Pilot’s Association of Chicago has remembered Coleman by flying over her grave. Interestingly, American Airlines partnered with Barbie earlier this year to release a limited edition Bessie Coleman doll.


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