Since the dawn of flight, Illinoisans have been soaring into the heavens. Whether it was helping the Wright Brothers get off the ground, crossing an ocean or flying to the moon, Illinois aviators have been at the forefront of making history in flight. In the late 1930s another Illinoisan took a crucial step that opened the doors of aviation to many more Americans who sought to spread their wings.
Willa Brown was born January 22, 1906, and spent her early years as a Chicago social worker and a schoolteacher. But she wanted something more. Coming of an age in an era in which the daring trailblazers were aviators, she sought to become a pilot herself. She was inspired in part by Bessie Coleman of Chicago who had become the world’s first African American woman pilot when she earned a pilot’s license in France.
Brown earned her MBA from Northwestern in 1937. While she was studying at Northwestern she met some members of a unit of African American aviators called the Challenger Air Pilots Association. Interested in what made flying machines work, she studied aircraft maintenance at Curtiss-Wright Aeronautical University in Chicago, which was the first flight school to accept African American students. She put her skills to work at Harlem Field in Oak Lawn, as a student and later an instructor in the Coffey Flying School, a pilot training program headed by the legendary aviator Cornelius Coffey. Theirs was the first African American-owned and operated flight school in the United States.
Brown knew Coffey from the Curtiss-Wright school and was eager to take the next step in her aeronautical education: moving from mechanic to pilot. In 1938, Willa Brown became the first African American woman to earn a private pilot’s license in the United States. She did so with a nearly-perfect score on her exam. A year later she accomplished another first when she earned her commercial pilot’s license as well.
The timing was propitious for Brown and for the nation. War clouds were gathering in Europe and the Pacific, and unlike the wars of the past this one was shaping up to be in large part an aerial conflict. While America remained reluctant to fight, President Franklin Roosevelt sought ways to prepare for the inevitable. One of these methods involved training as many civilian pilots as possible so that they would be ready to transition into military aviation should that become necessary.
Brown and Coffey helped found the National Airman’s Association of America (NAAA); an extension of the Challenger Air Pilots Association; as way to make sure African American aviators were included in the national effort. To publicize their mission, a group of pilots from the association flew to Washington. There they encountered Missouri Senator Harry S Truman who was so impressed by their plane and their flight that he told them, “if you had the guts to fly this thing to Washington, I’ve got guts enough to see that you get what you’re asking for.”
As the Secretary for the NAAA she worked tirelessly, contacting decision-makers in Washington to urge them to include African American pilots in the effort, and to let Harlem Field and the Coffey School play a leading role in their training.
Pilot training took on new urgency with the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939, and Brown succeeded in seeing that the federal government’s plan included seven training sites for prospective African American pilots (the most famous of which was in Tuskegee, Alabama). One of the sites chosen for the new Civilian Pilot Training Program was Harlem Field, where Willa Brown would be in charge of coordinating operations and, reflecting her background as both a pilot and a teacher, be the head of the ground school for trainees.
But even after they were up and running, the school and the training effort continued to face challenges from War Department officials skeptical about African American pilots. Brown wrote to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in 1941 that, “during the past three years I have devoted full time to aviation, and for the most part marked progress has been made,” she wrote. “I have, however, encountered several difficulties – several of them I have handled very well, and some have been far too great for me to master.”
Brown sought to overcome those challenges by training the best pilots in the sky. She played an important role in recruiting potential African American flyers for the program. Her duties included speaking on the radio and flying her airplane to colleges to encourage more would-be pilots to join the school at Harlem Field. As the effort proceeded, Brown was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), the group’s first African American officer. A photo in the National Archives shows Brown front-row-center, beaming, as she is sworn in with a group of fellow CAP officers.
She was determined that as many young pilots as possible make it through the program, and she would sometimes take matters into her own hands to help a struggling pilot find what it took to earn his wings. One such trainee, Quentin Smith, who had known Brown before the war, tells of just how dedicated she was.
“She said, ‘I’ve been watching you, Quentin, and I know you can learn to fly. Let me show you something,’ ” Smith told Air and Space Magazine in 2010. “She pulled it up into a stall and we spun seven or eight times—and you don’t spin a (Piper) Cub!—and then she pulled it out and this little lady said to me, ‘You can’t be King Kong, Quentin. You’ve got to be gentle. You’re going to learn to fly today.’”
She was right. Smith graduated from the program and went into the Army Air Force. He was just one of many: the Harlem Field school graduated hundreds of pilots without losing a single airplane.
Another former student, Chauncey Spencer, credited Brown with being, “the foundation, framework, and builder of people’s souls. She did it not for herself, but for all of us.”
Many of the pilots Brown helped train would go on to join the famed Tuskegee Airmen, including two of the original ten pilots and 15 of their mechanics. In all, nearly 200 Tuskegee Airmen would come from the Harlem Field training center.
With the war won, Brown recognized that there was still much to do. She ran unsuccessfully for Congress from Chicago’s South Side in 1946 and again in 1950, the first African American woman to seek a Congressional seat from Illinois. Undeterred, she kept up her advocacy for integration of the armed forces, something finally achieved shortly after the war.
She returned to education, teaching high school business and aeronautics until her retirement in 1971. But even in retirement she remained engaged in the aviation industry. During the mid-1970s Willa Brown served on the Federal Aviation Administration’s Women’s Advisory Board. A trailblazer once again, she was the first African American woman to serve in that capacity.
Willa Brown, blazer of so many trails in American aviation, died July 18, 1992, in Chicago.