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WoW Blog (Woman of the Week) Blog

WoW Blog (Woman of the Week)

Each week this blog will feature a prominent woman who made significant contributions to engineering or science. If you have any women you'd like us to feature please let us know and we'll do our best to include them.

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Woman of the Week – Bessie Coleman

Posted September 18, 2017 4:30 PM by lmno24

Bessie Coleman was the first African American woman to stage a public flight in America and first to hold a pilot’s license.

Born to a family of sharecroppers in Texas, she went into the cotton fields at a young age but also studied in a small segregated school and went on to attend one term of college at Langston University. She couldn’t afford any more schooling, so she went to live with her brother in Chicago. Then, Chicago was hit with one of the worst racial riots in history. Her family was not involved or harmed, but it left a certain vibe within the city.

She had developed an early interest in flying, but there were no opportunities for a young woman of color. She decided now was the time to follow her dream and escape the violence in Chicago. So, she saved up money to go to France to become a licensed pilot.

She learned to fly in a Nieuport 82 biplane with "a steering system that consisted of a vertical stick the thickness of a baseball bat in front of the pilot and a rudder bar under the pilot's feet."

On June 15, 1921, Coleman earned an aviation pilot’s license and an international aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. Determined to polish her skills, Coleman spent the next two months taking lessons from a French pilot and in September 1921 she sailed for New York. She became somewhat famous upon her return to the U.S.

As well as fame, Coleman was also criticized by the press for her opportunistic nature and the flamboyant style she brought to her exhibition flying. However, she also quickly gained a reputation as a skilled and daring pilot who would stop at nothing to complete a difficult stunt.

In 1923 Coleman purchased a small plane but crashed on the way to her first scheduled West Coast air show. The plane was destroyed and Coleman suffered injuries that hospitalized her for three months.

She was on a speaking tour in Florida when she met the Rev. Hezakiah Hill and his wife Viola, community activists who invited her to stay with them at the parsonage of Mount Zion Missionary Baptist Church on Washington Street in the neighborhood of Paramore. The couple took her in, like a daughter, and encouraged her to work in a beauty shop to earn money for another plane.

Her flights, personalities, and fame gave her enough pull to save for yet another plane. She also had a lifelong dream of eventually opening an aviation school.

Tragically, however, she was never able to see this happen. On an exhibition flight in 1926, she took flight with her mechanic and publicist William D. Willis. The plane – a Curtiss JN-4 (Jenny) – had been flown to Florida from Texas by Willis and needed to make three emergency landings along the way. Upon hearing this, family and friends discouraged the flight. She went regardless. They took flight and she didn’t have her safety belt on, as she had planned a parachute jump for after the flight and wanted to be able to move about and see the terrain. The plane took an unexpected dive and she was thrown from the plane and was killed instantly. Willis attempted to regain control of the plane, but it fell to the ground and he too died upon impact. The wreckage was badly burned, but it was later discovered that a wrench used to fix the engine had jammed the controls.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bessie_Coleman

https://www.biography.com/people/bessie-coleman-36928

http://www.notablebiographies.com/Co-Da/Coleman-Bessie.html

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#1

Re: Woman of the Week – Bessie Coleman

09/18/2017 5:56 PM

..."When the war ended, hundreds of Army-trained pilots returned home, determined to continue flying as civilians. But there were few commercially-built planes available, and none available at a price that most of the returning airmen could afford. None… except the Jenny! Thousands of them were crammed into government warehouses and sitting on flying fields. There were also thousands of extra OX-5 engines and spare parts. In 1919, these were declared surplus and offered for sale to private individuals. Thus the golden Age of American Aviation began. The era known as “Barnstorming” took flight. The Curtiss Jenny was used to sell many Americans "their first airplane ride," while others were used in wild flying stunts. Although the whole business was rather haphazard, the barnstormers performed an important function. They kept aviation in the public eye during the lean years following the war and in general, introduced the whole country to private and commercial flying."...

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#2
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Re: Woman of the Week – Bessie Coleman

09/18/2017 7:25 PM

The Curtiss Jenny, hmm.. Working for Curtiss-Wright, that plane has some historical meaning to me.

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Re: Woman of the Week – Bessie Coleman

09/22/2017 12:07 PM

...hence the saying: "Somebody threw a wrench into the works." Horrible negligence, cost two dear lives. This tale surely brings air safety front and center, although few of us have ever or will ever fly in a JN-4.

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