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Trailblazers honored in hall of fame

When a barnstormer came through Newport, Arkansas, in 1916, 13-year-old Cornelius Coffey and his friends pooled their nickels and dimes to raise enough money for just one kid to ride. They planned to draw straws, but as they watched the airplane take off and land, friends dropped out one by one. Finally only Coffey remained.

He climbed on board for loops and dives, and to the pilot’s astonishment he never squealed or cried. “The pilot said, ’Hey kid, you’re fearless. You should learn to fly,’” Coffey’s grand-nephew Craig Coffey recounted September 22 at the fifty-ninth annual National Aviation Hall of Fame Enshrinement Ceremony. Coffey went on to earn his pilot certificate, become an aircraft mechanic, and establish a Chicago flight school that trained future Tuskegee Airmen—accomplishments that contributed to his selection among the 2023 class of inductees.

Coffey, Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) member Velta Benn, airport business leader Angela Gittens, astronauts Fred Haise and Kathryn Sullivan, and former General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) President Edward Stimpson were honored in an induction ceremony at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.

“We record their histories and tell their stories [so] their accomplishments inspire the next generation of pioneers, aviators, and leaders,” said James E. Cooling, chair of the National Aviation Hall of Fame. “This is why the National Aviation Hall of Fame exists.”

Cornelius Coffey (1903–1994)

Coffey dreamed of flying since his first flight as a teenager, but as a Black man in the early twentieth century, his opportunities were limited. He became an auto mechanic and was accepted to the Curtiss Wright School of Aviation for an aviation mechanics course in 1929, but when he reported to class he was denied entry. After his employer threatened legal action, he was admitted, and two years later he graduated at the top of his class. Coffey became the first African American to hold a pilot and mechanic certificate. His Coffey School of Aeronautics at Harlem Airport in Chicago trained more than 1,500 students, including many of the men who would become Tuskegee Airmen.

Velta Benn (1917–2010)

The United States needed military pilots, and Velta Benn was eager to serve her country. She met the flying requirements for the WASP, but fell just shy of the height requirements. So to prepare for the physical, she hung by her knees from a tree branch, according to daughter Laura Benn. It worked. Benn joined the WASP in 1944 and was assigned to Merced Army Airfield in California, ferrying pilots and airplanes around the country before the WASP were disbanded. Later, she worked as a military flight instructor; became the first woman to land on an aircraft carrier; and logged 55,000 flight hours as a CFI, FAA examiner, and safety expert.

Edward Stimpson (1934–2009)

When Cessna Aircraft restarted its production lines in the 1990s, the first aircraft to leave the factory bore tail numbers with “ES,” a nod to the first president of GAMA. Ed Stimpson was a major force in promoting 1994 legislation limiting liability for aircraft manufacturers, which is often credited with rebooting GA aircraft production in the United States. As the leader of GAMA, Stimpson led an effort to recruit new student pilots; he also oversaw the growth of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University as a trustee.

Angela Gittens

The Olympic games were coming to Atlanta, and the airport needed to be ready. Angela Gittens was CEO of Atlanta’s Hartsfield Jackson Atlanta International Airport, the world’s busiest airport, at a critical time. She led the airport through preparations for the games and oversaw modernization of air travel and new policies on security and passenger safety. Later, she led broader airport improvement efforts as director general of Airports Council International (ACI World) and lent her expertise to FAA advisory committees and other projects.

Fred Haise

Fred Haise was supposed to be the sixth man to walk on the moon. Haise most famously flew as the lunar module pilot on the aborted Apollo 13 mission during his 20-year career at NASA; he joined the administration as a research pilot in 1959 before moving to the astronaut office and serving as backup crew on Apollo missions 8, 11, and 16; flying on the Apollo 13 mission; working in early space shuttle development; and commanding the space shuttle Enterprise for approach and landing tests. Haise began his aviation career in the U.S. Navy, and after leaving NASA in 1979 he held leadership roles at Northrop Grumman.

Kathryn Sullivan

Dual passions for oceanography and space led Kathryn Sullivan to explore the highest highs and the deepest depths. The first American woman to walk in space, Sullivan holds Guinness records for the first woman to reach the Challenger Deep, the greatest vertical extent traveled by an individual (within Earth’s exosphere), and the first person to visit space and the deepest point on Earth. She was among the first NASA group to include women and served as the mission specialist on the shuttle mission that launched the Hubble telescope. Her NASA career includes missions aboard the space shuttles Challenger, Discovery, and Atlantis; she later served in multiple roles at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Also honored this year were Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) and Rep. Sam Graves (R-Mo.) with the Congressional Leadership Award, ForeFlight co-founder Tyson Weihs with the Neil Armstrong Outstanding Achievement Award, NASA’s Ingenuity Mars Helicopter Team with the Milton Caniff Spirit of Flight Award, and Megan Tucker of Hillsboro Charter Academy as the Scott A. Crossfield Teacher of the Year. AOPA was a Silver Sponsor of the event.

Sarah Deener
Sarah Deener
Senior Director of Publications
Senior Director of Publications Sarah Deener is an instrument-rated commercial pilot and has worked for AOPA since 2009.
Topics: Awards and Records, People

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