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Early African American Aviators

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Cornelius Coffey

Cornelius Coffey in an undated photograph. Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution, image number 91-6606.


Cornelius Coffey was born in Newport, Arkansas on 6 September 1903, just a few months before Orville and Wilbur Wright took the first flight in a motor-powered aircraft at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Coffey took his first airplane ride when he was 13 years old, and that exciting ride hooked him on aviation for the rest of his life. As Coffey tells the story, "There was a barnstormer at my home, and he came in giving rides. He was charging a dollar and fifty cents for a ride. So my buddy decided that he was going to dare me to take a ride in this airplane. I heard the pilot tell one of the fellows, 'He'll never even look at another airplane, let alone take a ride.'" The pilot performed all sorts of daring stunts, trying to scare Coffey away from flying. "Man, I almost got into a tailspin trying to excite him," the pilot said.

Coffey's family relocated to Chicago when he was young. In 1925 Coffey enrolled in a trade school on the south side of Chicago to study automobile mechanics. It was here that he met John C. Robinson, who also shared Coffey's ambition to learn how to fly an airplane.

After completing their auto mechanic training, both Coffey and Robinson were hired by Emil Mack, a white man who owned a Chevrolet dealership in Elmwood Park, Illinois. While working for Mack, Coffey and Robinson applied to the Curtiss Wright School of Aviation in Chicago for an aviation mechanics course, and both were accepted. Upon reporting to the school for the start of classes, however, Coffey and Robinson were refused admittance when it was discovered they were black. The school attempted to reimburse the two men for the tuition that had already been paid, but their employer, Emil Mack, threatened to sue the school if they were not allowed to enter. The school backed down and allowed Coffey and Robinson to attend. Two years later they graduated at the top of their class.

Coffey and Robinson proceeded to organize the all-black Challenger Air Pilots Association in 1931. Because most airports were segregated in those days, the association had to build an airstrip in a black community. After securing land in the black township of Robbins, Illinois, in 1933, the group's next important task was to find an airplane. Coffey recalled that six or seven months later, they found a used car dealer willing to take an automobile as a trade on an airplane, and that John Robinson traded in his car for a Hummingbird biplane.

Willa Brown was the public relations person for the association, and she proved very successful at attracting press coverage for the Challenger air shows. Coffey would end up marrying Willa Brown during this time. In the late 1930s, Coffey established the Coffey School of Aeronautics at Harlem Airport, located south of Chicago at 87th Street and Harlem Avenue. From 1938 to 1945, more than 1,500 black students went through the school, including many who would later become Tuskegee Airmen.

In addition to operating the Challenger Air Pilots Association, Coffey, Robinson, Brown, and the other Chicago flyers tried to interest the Tuskegee Institute in building an aviation program. Coffey and Robinson flew to Tuskegee in the mid-1930s to encourage the Institute to include aviation in its program, but the school rejected their idea. On the way back to Chicago from Tuskegee after this disappointing trip, Coffey and Robinson crashed and lost their airplane.

As the Chicago aero club grew, the aviators became frustrated that neither Tuskegee nor the U.S. military would train blacks as combat pilots. They were all aware of Eugene Bullard flying for the French air force in World War I, and they knew of efforts by Haile Selassie and Hubert Julian to organize an Ethiopian air force. John Robinson did eventually join Julian in Ethiopia for a short time, but he returned to Chicago after the Italian invasion in 1935.

Coffey, Robinson, and others in Chicago next turned their attention to the United States government. The pilots hoped to convince government officials to accept blacks into the Civilian Pilot Training program (CPT), a flight school established by Congress to prepare civilian pilots for wartime emergency. With the assistance of the NAACP and other groups, the Chicago flyers successfully persuaded the government to open up the CPT to blacks in 1939. For the first time, black pilots had access to U.S. government flight training.

The role of blacks in aviation was changing. African Americans had shown they indeed had the ability to fly, and black pilots were finally being recognized as important participants in the growing field of aviation. Tuskegee Institute would soon become the central training ground for black combat pilots, and many CPT graduates would go on to become Tuskegee Airmen.

Coffey was a key contributor to this shift. After World War II ended, Coffey served as an instructor at the Lewis School of Aeronautics in Lockport and at Dunbar Vocational High School in Chicago, training some of the first blacks to be hired as mechanics by commercial airlines.

Cornelius Coffey was the first black person to hold both a pilot's license and mechanic's license. He was the recipient of the Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and was the first African American to have an aerial navigation intersection named after him by the FAA. (The waypoint, named the "Coffey Fix", is located on the VICTOR 7 airway over Lake Calumet, and provides electronic course guidance to Chicago Midway Airport Runway 31 Left). Coffey also designed a carburetor heater that prevented icing and allowed airplanes to fly in all kinds of weather. Similar devices are still in use in aircraft today (Hart, 1984).

Coffey was also the first black person to establish a formal aeronautical school in the United States. His school was the only non-university affiliated aviation school to become part of the Civilian Pilot Training Program, and his pioneering efforts led to the integration of black pilots into the American aviation industry. The Cornelius Coffey Aviation Education Foundation was established at the American Airlines Maintenance Academy in Chicago to help train a younger generation of high school and college students interested in aviation.

Cornelius Coffey–master mechanic, veteran pilot, and aviation educator–passed away in Chicago, Illinois on 2 March 1994.

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