Before Earhart

Growing up I believed there was one famous female aviator, Amelia Earhart. My history books in school included no mention of anyone else.

The Wright Brothers invented flight in 1903 at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. My father was born in 1914 and told me he remembered watching an airplane make its way across the sky. This occurred during his early childhood. He said he must have watched that plane for 30 minutes it moved so slow.

Earhart flew for the first time on December 28, 1920. It was a 10-minute ride. She was 23 years old.

A month before, November 20, 1920, a young 29-year-old woman left for France. She wanted a pilot’s license, but getting one in America wasn’t easy. At least for her, it wasn’t. Not only was she an African American, but was also part Indian, Native American. I can’t even imagine the difficulty she had getting through a day in this country a hundred years ago.

On June 15, 1921, Bessie Coleman earned her international aviation license. Almost 2 years later, Earhart received her pilot’s license. The records show Earhart became the 16th woman in the world to become a licensed aviator. No word about Bessie Coleman.

“The air is the only place free from prejudice.” ┬áBessie Coleman

We all know the story of Earhart’s last flight that began July 2, 1937. Coleman’s story ended much earlier.

Bessie Coleman bought a Curtiss JN-4, better known as a “Jenny” in Dallas, Texas. Her mechanic flew the plane to her from Dallas to Jacksonville, Florida. Reports say he had to bring the plane down three times during the trip because it was in bad shape. Coleman wanted the “Jenny” for her performance at an airshow in Florida. Those closest to her tried to convince her the plane was unsafe.

On April 30, 1926, Coleman and her mechanic, William Willis, took flight in the “Jenny.” Ten minutes after take-off the plane began to dive and spin out of control. Coleman was flying without a parachute or a seatbelt that day. She wanted to be able to lean over and see the terrain where she intended a parachute jump during the show. She fell out of the plane at 2,000 feet and died when she hit the ground. Willis never regained control of the plane and died on impact. Despite the plane exploding and burning up, they were able to determine the cause of the crash. Someone left a wrench in the engine compartment jamming the controls.

Coleman was only 34 years old.

(Coleman was born on this date, January 26th, 1892.)


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