Though long under-appreciated and under-resourced, African-Americans have made incredible impacts across the aviation industry in both the United States and the world. To kick off Black History Month, we are going to shed light on Black pioneers that helped break barriers and shape the industry we all know and love today.

1. Emory Malick

You may have heard of Emory Malick because he was the first black pilot in the United States, though it was long thought to be James Herman Banning who flew some 14 years after Malick. Emory Malick attended Curtiss Aviation School in San Diego, CA and received an international pilot’s license in 1912 when he was 31 years old. This makes him the first known Black pilot and the first to have a pilot’s license. He built and flew gliders in 1910, and according to Pennsylvania’s Selinsgrove Times he purchased a biplane which he flew over central Pennsylvania in 1914. Later he did aerial photography for Dallin Aerial Surveys and Aero Service Corporation and also worked for Flying Dutchman Air Service doing flight instruction.

 

2. Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman was the first Black woman and Native-American to hold a pilot license, which she received on June 15, 1921, less than 10 years after Emory Malick got his. Coleman was also the first Black person to earn an international pilot’s license. She was born to a poor family of sharecroppers in Texas and grew up working the cotton fields while studying in a small segregated school. She developed an early interest in flying but women had no flight training opportunities in the US so she obtained sponsorships to go to France for flight school.

After receiving her international license and returning to the US, she appeared before large audiences flying in notoriously dangerous air shows trying to spark female and African-American interest in aviation. She was known by many as ‘Queen Bess’ and ‘Brave Bessie’.

3. Cornelius Coffey

Starting as an auto mechanic in Chicago, Cornelius Coffey dreamed of becoming a pilot so he brought together a group of Black air enthusiasts to study at Curtiss-Wright Aeronautical School in 1931. He was integral in expanding flying opportunities for African-Americans in Chicago by organizing the Challengers Air Pilots’ Association. They were originally excluded from the local airfields so they set up a headquarters away from Chicago in Robbins, IL. He later established his own flight school, the Coffey School of Aeronautics, to help other African-Americans get the aviation training they needed to impact the industry. 

4. Patrice Washington

Patrice Washington was a series of firsts for both African-Americans and women in aviation. She attended Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Dayton Beach, FL and graduated in 1982, making her the first Black graduate from the university. She paved the way for other African-Americans to be accepted and graduate from the previously segregated school. Two years later, she became the first female pilot of Bahamassair, the national airline of the Bahamas. Though often braving discrimination, Washington, the first Black female pilot hired by UPS in 1988 and was later promoted to captain, making her the first Black woman to be promoted to captain of a major US air service. In 1995, she started the Bessie Coleman Foundation to promote the aviation profession among Black communities and provide them with a network within the airline sector. 

 

These are only a few of the many Black pioneers that have had a hand in shaping aviation as we know it today. Because of these fine individuals, African-Americans can more easily graduate from flight schools and get hired within the flight sector. Join us in celebrating Black History Month and actively learn about the history that has been shaped in your community by hard-working Black Americans this month and every other month of the year.