Despite the odds being stacked against them throughout history, African-American aviators have contributed significantly to flight exploration as well as to the outer edges of space. Whether male or female, these brave and unique individuals achieved many firsts in aviation and continue to be a source of inspiration to their communities.
Here are 10 noteworthy black pilots who were pioneers of their generation.
Bessie Coleman: First African-American and Native-American Female Pilot
Hailing from both African-American and Native-American descent, Bessie Coleman (1892-1926) was the first female from both ethnic heritages to earn her pilot license. But because there were no aeronautical facilities that would teach minority women to fly in America, Coleman had to earn her license in France, which she did in 1921. When she returned to the States, she became a celebrity and built her career as an airshow pilot. Although she had big dreams of starting an African-American flying school, she died during a test flight in 1926.
Eugene Jacques Bullard: First African-American Military Combat Pilot
Born in Columbus, Georgia in 1895, Eugene Jacques Bullard had lived many interesting lives before and after making history as the first black military pilot. As a teen, he found his way to London and later settled in France as both an entertainer and boxer. When World War I broke out, he fought for France and became a decorated infantryman before training as a pilot, receiving his license in 1917. Bullard went on to participate in more than 20 combat missions before becoming a prominent nightclub owner in France and rubbing elbows with the likes of Louis Armstrong and Josephine Baker. However, after fighting and getting wounded in World War II, he returned to the States and settled in Harlem, New York, where he worked odd jobs — his final stint being an elevator operator at Rockefeller Center. He died from stomach cancer in 1961 and was buried in Flushing Cemetery in the French War Veterans' section in Queens, New York.
James Banning: First African-American Pilot to Fly Across America
Born in 1900, James Banning held onto his childhood dreams of flying, despite the fact no school in America was willing to train a black man. Thankfully for Banning, he found a white pilot who taught him the ropes and in 1926 became one of the first African-American pilots in history. In 1932, with only four people coming out to watch his epic endeavor from a small airport in Los Angeles, Banning set off with his mechanic Thomas C. Allen on a coast-to-coast history-making flight. Known as the "Flying Hoboes," the two made the harrowing 3,300-mile journey and landed in Long Island, New York, clocking in at 41 hours and 27 minutes. Banning was unable to enjoy the fruits of his labor, however; he died just four months later in an air show plane crash in San Diego.
Cornelius Coffey: First Aviation School Founder
Cornelius Coffey (1902-1994) was a triple threat in his day: He was not only distinguished as the first African-American aviator who had both a pilot and mechanic's license, but he also was the first to have founded a non-university affiliated flight school. With his wife and fellow aviator Willa Brown, Coffey established the Coffey School of Aeronautics in Illinois, where they trained many black pilots, including a significant number of Tuskegee Airmen. The school would later be moved to Harlem, New York.
Willa Brown: First African-American Woman to Earn a Pilot License in the U.S.
Like her husband Cornelius Coffey, Willa Brown (1906-1992) accomplished many firsts, and some of her achievements extended beyond aviation. While she's best known for being the first black woman to receive her pilot license in the U.S., which she did in 1938, Brown also became the first black woman to serve as a Civil Air Patrol officer, the first to receive a commercial pilot's license and the first to run for Congress. Having co-founded the Coffey School of Aeronautics, Brown would later organize flight schools for youth and remained active in Chicago politics and its public education system before she retired in 1971.
The Tuskegee Airmen: First Black Military Aviators in the U.S. Armed Forces
Led by C. Alfred Anderson, who was known as the "Father of Black Aviation," the Tuskegee Airmen (active 1940-1948) had a lot to prove to their country and the rest of the world as the first black military pilots in the U.S. Armed Forces. Subjected to discrimination both on and off the battlefield, the Tuskegee Airmen's service during World War II was at a time when the military was still segregated. Their heroic missions — escorting heavy bomber aircraft and conducting successful attack missions in 1945 — earned them distinguished honors and helped bring about the desegregation of the military.
Robert Lawrence: First African-American Astronaut
Born in Chicago in 1935, Robert Lawrence graduated from Bradley University at age 20 with a chemistry degree. He would go on to serve as an Air Force officer and skilled pilot, logging in 2,500 hours and flying in 2,000 jets. In 1965 he earned his PhD in physical chemistry from Ohio State University, and two years later, was chosen by the Air Force to take part in the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) program, a clandestine space mission that aimed at spying at Cold War adversaries. As a member of MOL, Lawrence became the first black astronaut selected to a national space program and the only member with a doctorate. Unfortunately, despite all of his promise, Lawrence would never reach space. He was killed as a backseat passenger while testing an F-104 Starfighter supersonic jet, which crashed on December 8, 1967. Still, Lawrence is remembered for helping develop the Space Shuttle and would have most likely been part of the group who subsequently flew on some of its early missions.
Guy Bluford: First African-American Astronaut in Space
What Robert Lawrence fell short of achieving, Guy Bluford picked up the mantle. Born in Philadelphia in 1942, Bluford served in the U.S. Air Force as an officer and pilot before working at NASA. With multiple degrees in aerospace engineering, Bluford was chosen to participate in the NASA astronaut training program in 1978 and became the first black person in space as a crew member of the Orbiter Challenger in 1983. The historical significance wouldn't hit him until later, but once he let reality set in, he embraced it fully. "I wanted to set the standard, do the best job possible so that other people would be comfortable with African-Americans flying in space and African-Americans would be proud of being participants in the space program and… encourage others to do the same." Bluford would go on to serve in three other Space Shuttle missions before retiring from the program in 1993.
Mae Jemison: First African-American Female in Space
Around the time Guy Bluford was nearing the end of his NASA career, Mae Jemison was just beginning hers. Born in Alabama in 1956, Jemison grew up in Chicago and was involved heavily in dance yet also held a fascination with science. She graduated from Stanford University with a chemical engineering degree in 1977 and received her medical degree from Cornell Medical College four years later. After holding a brief medical practice, Jemison took time off to serve in the Peace Corps, which is when she discovered she was accepted into the NASA program. On September 12, 1992, Jemison became the first black woman in space as a member of the Space Shuttle Endeavour. A person with many skills and interests, Jemison retired from the program a year later and went on to establish her own tech research company, write a memoir and is currently a professor at Cornell University.
Emory Malick: First Black Pilot (But some historians disagree)
Born in Pennsylvania in 1881, Emory Malick fell in love with flying as a young man. In 1911 he was the first aviator to fly through the central part of the state, and the following year he received his international pilot license, making him the first African-American pilot in history... or was he? According to his granddaughter, Mary Groce, who recently discovered family documents that confirmed he was black, the answer is "yes." Other organizations like the Federal Aviation Administration, United States Department of Veterans Affairs and American aviation pioneer Glenn Curtis, who trained Malick, also attest to this presumption. However, other historians have revealed official records that indicate Malick identified as white. Due to his mixed black and European ancestry, the controversy over his race has kept him from receiving unanimous recognition in black aviation history.