Willa Brown is a name that rarely makes it into the aviation history books, but it should.
We hear so often about Bessie Coleman (1892-1926), the first African American woman to earn a pilot’s license. It’s true that Coleman was the first African American woman to earn a pilot’s license, and went on to a successful, albeit short-lived, career as an airshow pilot. Because of racial discrimination, Coleman was forced to sail to France to earn her license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. A few years later, in a slightly more inclusive time, Willa Brown became the first African American woman to earn a pilot’s license issued by the Civil Aeronautics Authority (an FAA precursor) in 1938. (The FAA, established in 1958, issues pilot certificates, though the first pilots were "licensed" by a branch of the U.S. Department of Commerce that became the CAA in 1938.)
Brown was born in 1906, in a small southern Kentucky town with the name of a major Scottish city, Glasgow. When she was 6 years old, her family moved to Terre Haute, Indiana, where she graduated from high school and earned a teaching degree at the Indiana State Teachers College in 1927. She began working as a high school teacher in Gary, Indiana, a profession she loved and to which she returned later in life. After five years of teaching, she moved to Chicago, where she worked various jobs during the early years of the Great Depression.
No one seems to know what sparked the high school teacher’s interest in aviation and her career shift. No doubt, she was inspired by Coleman, who performed as a stunt pilot and parachute jumper on the barnstorming circuit from 1922 until her untimely death in 1926.
Brown joined the Challenger Air Pilots Association (CAPA), a group of African American pilots in the Chicago area. In 1931, the group had purchased a plot of farmland in Robbins, Illinois, southwest of Chicago, leveled it for runways, and built a hangar. This may have been the first African American-owned airport in the United States. When the group’s airplanes and hangar were destroyed by a violent storm the next year, the CAPA pilots moved a few miles north to Harlem Airport, at 87th Street and Harlem Avenue in Oak Lawn. The owner of the airport welcomed the CAPA pilots but insisted on segregating the African Americans to save them from any “trouble with the other guys.” The CAPA pilots used one-half of the facilities, housing their airplanes in separate hangars, but flying from the same turf. Brown became a flight student at Harlem Airport, where she met Cornelius Coffey, who operated a flight school there. She assisted in the school’s operation, operated the airport café, and was briefly married to Coffey.
She earned an aircraft mechanic certificate from Curtiss–Wright Aeronautical University in 1935 and her private pilot certificate in 1938, becoming the first African American woman to earn either certificate in the United States.
Brown assisted in the founding what became known as the National Airmen’s Association of America, which was dedicated to increasing African American participation in aviation. Brown often visited colleges and spoke on radio programs in efforts to increase the number of African American pilots.
In 1939, Brown was cited in the Congressional Record for her aviation achievements and was profiled by Time magazine in its September 25, 1939, issue.
In 1946 and 1950, Brown ran as a Republican in the primary election for Illinois's First Congressional District, becoming the first African American woman to run in a congressional primary election. She was defeated both times.
Brown returned to teaching in 1962 and retired in 1971. She was a member of the FAA’s Women's Advisory Committee from 1972 to 1975. Brown died on July 18, 1992, and was interred at Lincoln Cemetery in Chicago, the same cemetery where Coleman was laid to rest 66 years earlier.
In October, airport officials approved a display honoring Brown to be installed inside the Terre Haute Regional Airport terminal. It will educate travelers to the accomplishments of Brown, who was raised, educated, and worked in Indiana, although she was born in Kentucky and lived most of her life in Illinois.
If you find yourself in Glasgow, Kentucky, look for the historical marker at the northeast corner of South Race Street and West Washington Street, which commemorates Brown, who was born in the town. The nearest airport is Glasgow Municipal Airport (also known as Moore Field) three miles northwest of Glasgow. It has one runway, 08/26, that is 5,302 feet long by 100 feet wide at 716 feet msl. The airport facilities are open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday to Saturday. Jet A fuel and 100LL are available 24/7.
The Sisters of the Skies organization was formed to “increase the number of black women in the professional pilot career field.” The organization offers scholarships, mentorship, and camaraderie for women interested in aviation.