Pioneering Female Pilots

Bessie Coleman – The First Woman of Color to Earn an International Pilot License

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Who was the first woman of color to earn an international pilot license?

In the early 20th century, flying planes was almost exclusively a male pastime. Not a single flight school in the United States would teach a woman how to fly a plane. Can you believe that aviation was once such a boys only club? It took a brave, barrier-breaking woman named Bessie Coleman to earn the first international pilot license issued to an African American or to any woman of color. Talk about cockpit diversity! Read on to learn more about this high-flying pioneer who kicked open the doors of aviation for later generations.

Who Was Bessie Coleman?

Bessie Coleman, born on January 26, 1892 in Atlanta, Texas, was one of 13 children born to sharecroppers George and Susan Coleman. Her early life involved picking cotton and doing laundry to help the family scrape by. Coleman first became interested in aviation after hearing stories from returning World War I soldiers about flying airplanes in France. She instantly felt captivated by the tales of adventure and freedom up in the open skies. However, she faced barriers throughout the Jim Crow era as both an African American and a woman seeking a pilot’s license.

Becoming Interested in Aviation

In a time when people deemed flying “too dangerous for women,” Coleman set her sights on the clouds and didn’t look back. She began studying French at night and following news of early aviation closey. She read everything she could from magazines about airplanes and pilots. In 1918, her application to an American flight school was rejected because she was a woman and African American. Talk about double discrimination! Because American schools shut her out of aviation due to her race and gender, Coleman knew she had to look abroad to make her pilot dreams take flight.

Earning Her License Abroad

Coleman took matters into her own hands and set off for France in 1920 to become a certified pilot. She studied diligently under the tutelage of esteemed French aviator Néri. The lessons paid off – on June 15, 1921 she became the first woman of color on the planet to earn an aviation pilot license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI). She completed her training on French Nieuport Type 82 biplanes – not an easy feat given the minimal pilot controls and greater risk of stalling in early aircraft compared to today. But Coleman kept her cool at high altitudes and went through advanced courses in aviation to truly master her craft.

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Major Accomplishments

After earning her license, Bessie Coleman returned to America as a sensation in the press – both the African American media and mainstream publications lauded her trailblazing accomplishment. Some key feats and honors Coleman achieved include:

  • First woman of color in the world to earn an international aviation pilot license – this broke barriers for both female aviators as well as African American pilots looking to follow in her contrails.
  • First African American to earn an international aviation pilot license – she paved the way for black aviators to take their skills overseas when denied chances in the U.S.
  • Only African American to hold an international pilot license in 1921 – she uniquely broke racial barriers and attained an elite level of pilot certification.
  • Refused to participate in airshows that prohibited African American spectators – she demanded inclusivity.

Bessie required white audiences of the era to accept mixed crowds if they wanted to see her daredevil flying theatrics.

Bessie Coleman’s Legacy

How Did Bessie Coleman Died? Bessie Coleman tragically died at 34 in 1926 after an accident during a rehearsal for an aerial show caused her plane to fatally crash at such a young age bessie coleman leave us. However, the legacy of her pioneering aviation accomplishments has fueled generations of women and African Americans to pursue flight.

Coleman inspired the group of Tuskegee Airmen who became the first African American military pilots in U.S. armed forces history during World War II. She also co-inspired the establishment of the Civilian Pilot Training Program under President Franklin Roosevelt in 1939 to strengthen American aviation overall.

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Numerous honors have kept the memory of Bessie Coleman’s barrier-breaking career alive, including:

  • Multiple U.S. postage stamps bearing her likeness
  • Distinguished Florida Women’s Hall of Fame membership
  • Bessie Coleman Aviation All-Stars youth program
  • Bessie Coleman Scholarship fund
  • Bessie Coleman Middle School in Cedar Hill, Texas
  • Bessie Coleman Boulevard in Waxahachie, Texas near her hometown

So in the short span of just 5 years piloting aircraft, Bessie Coleman made enormous strides for the advancement of women and African Americans to participate in aviation together. It’s almost like she flew as fast at breaking records on the ground as she did while speeding through the clouds!

Bessie Coleman Pictures In Color

bessie coleman pictures in color


What color was Bessie Coleman?

Bessie Coleman was African American.

How old was Bessie Coleman when she died?

Bessie Coleman died at the age of 34 on April 30, 1926 in a plane crash.

Why did Bessie Coleman’s father leave her?

Bessie Coleman’s father left his family and returned to the United States in search of better opportunities when Bessie was young. He sent for his family later, but only his sons joined him in America. Bessie was forced to remain in Texas with her mother.

Where is Bessie Coleman buried?

Bessie Coleman is buried at the Lincoln Cemetery in Chicago, Illinois. She had wanted to establish an aviation school in Chicago for African Americans.

Did Bessie Coleman have siblings?

Yes, Bessie Coleman had 12 siblings, though only herself and two brothers survived to adulthood.

How tall was Bessie Coleman when she died?

Bessie Coleman’s height at the time of her death is not definitively known, but she was described as tall, graceful and statuesque, so likely around 5′ 6″ or 5′ 7″.

What Plane Did Bessie Coleman Fly

Bessie Coleman, the first African American female pilot, flew a Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplane. She had to go to France for flight school since she was denied entry to American flight schools due to gender and racial discrimination at the time.


Bessie Coleman smashed restrictive conventions and prohibitive norms in 1920s America that sought to relegate African Americans and women to lesser status across many spheres – including aviation and flying planes. Some important takeaways are:

  • She became the first woman of color granted an international pilot license through her own tireless determination to succeed at flight overseas when American flight schools shunned her dreams due to racism and sexism.
  • She mastered French, studied rigorously, and pioneered new territory for both female pilots as well as African American aviators aspiring to spread their wings beyond limits.
  • She leveraged her aviation platform and prominence to actively speak out and set conditions promoting greater inclusivity at events.
  • Her enduring legacy continues inspiring new generations of Black female pilots to ascend to the skies, along with the establishment of educational scholarships and youth programs fueling diversity in aviation.

So never forget the story of daring Bessie Coleman – the fly girl who soared valiantly above earthly constraints to achieve her highest altitude dreams! She cleared the runway for African American women pilots to taxi and takeoff ever since as her memory lives on.

Meet the Author
Helen Garcia
Helen Garcia is a linguist and has always had her head in the clouds and her eyes on the horizon. From a young age, she was that kid gazing endlessly at planes sailing high overheard, dreaming of one day slipping the surly bonds of Earth. She got her chance to touch the heavens after high school by attending the United States Air Force Academy and becoming a pilot.

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