Despite gender and race discrimination, and despite the small numbers of black women active in aviation, black women have contributed notably to the encouragement of black Americans' participation in aviation and to the furtherance of aerospace research.The Early Years of FlightWomen actively participated in aviation from the earliest days of the French balloonists and parachutists in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, both as balloon pilots and as entertainers. In 1900, a black woman named Mary Doughtry reportedly performed as a parachutist, descending from a...
Despite gender and race discrimination, and despite the small numbers of black women active in aviation, black women have contributed notably to the encouragement of black Americans' participation in aviation and to the furtherance of aerospace research.The Early Years of FlightWomen actively participated in aviation from the earliest days of the French balloonists and parachutists in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, both as balloon pilots and as entertainers. In 1900, a black woman named Mary Doughtry reportedly performed as a parachutist, descending from a balloon before a New Orleans crowd. Two African American women work in the wing sub-assembly department in a airplane factory in Inglewood, California. During World War II, the plant turned out nearly four thousand B-25C bombers for the allied cause. Library of Congress At the close of the nineteenth century, inventors in America and Europe struggled to achieve powered flight, testing a variety of machines without success. In 1903, the Wright brothers achieved the first successful powered flight of a heavier-than-air machine. In the next decade, inventors and enthusiasts of all races tested the capabilities of powered flying machines; at least four black inventors took out patents for aircraft before World War I.Still, racial discrimination obstructed blacks' participation in this new field. Military training was unavailable to them, and aviation schools would not accept them. By 1910, there were some black pilots. The first black Americans known to have become air pilots trained in France and in Canada. Others taught themselves. One, Eugene Bullard, was a French combat pilot during World War I; blacks would not be accepted as American military pilots until World War II. After World War I, public interest in aviation increased as many returning military pilots became “barnstormers,” daredevils who sold plane rides and performed stunts at country fairs. Gender and race discrimination, however, remained strong.Chicago resident Bessie Coleman was the first black woman aviator. She was repeatedly turned down by aviation schools. But with financial support from several Chicago businessmen, Coleman was able to travel to France for training and, in 1921, obtained her pilot's license. She then returned to the United States, planning to found an aviation school for blacks. To raise funds, she began barnstorming, first in the Midwest and Northeast, then focusing her shows predominantly in the South, where she refused to perform before segregated audiences. Through her performances, lectures, and newsreels—film was a medium also still in its infancy—Coleman encouraged black Americans to become involved in aviation. She was killed in an air accident in 1926, but generations of pilots of both genders and all races would be inspired by Coleman's determination and enthusiasm.In the late 1920s, William J. Powell organized the Bessie Coleman Aero Club in Los Angeles to promote “airmindedness,” as the enthusiasm for and interest in aviation were then known, among the black community. Marie Dickerson Coker became one of the more notable early pilots of the group and was one of the headlined stars of the demonstration team “The Five Blackbirds” when the Bessie Coleman Aero Club organized its first all-black air shows in the fall of 1931.Women's aviation achievements were generally segregated during the inter-war period. Although both black and white women were stunt pilots and parachutists, white women also strove to set records of altitude, endurance, speed, and distance. The first national organization of women aviators, the Ninety-Nines, founded in 1929 by Amelia Earhart and other notable female flyers of the day, numbered no black women among its ninety-nine charter members. Economics also played a role; a 1935 National Aeronautics magazine survey showed that, of 142 women pilots surveyed, 21 were employed in aviation, 35 were homemakers, and 33 had independent incomes.In Chicago in the early 1930s, Cornelius R. Coffey and John C. Robinson founded the Challenger Air Pilots' Association to give blacks the opportunity to pursue aviation careers. Among its early members were Janet Waterford Bragg and Willa B. Brown. Bragg and Brown became the first two black women to achieve commercial pilots' ratings. At the end of 1932, Janet Waterford (later Bragg) was the only woman listed among twenty-one black American aviators then licensed by the U. S. Department of Commerce. In 1939, a similar list of more than 120 licensed black pilots noted approximately 13 women, an increase from 5 percent to more than 10 percent. By comparison, in 1930 there were nearly 200 women pilots in the United States, a number that grew to between 700 and 800 by 1935.In 1937, when the National Airmen's Association of America (NAAA), a national organization for black aviators, was founded, its twelve directors included Willa B. Brown, Marie St. Clair, and Janet Waterford, as well as other prominent black pilots and Chicago businessmen.With Cornelius R. Coffey in 1938, Willa Brown established the Coffey School of Aeronautics, soon a major training ground for black pilots, who eventually became part of the Army Air Corps through the training program at Tuskegee Institute. Their bravery and skill in combat would, in another decade, lead to the desegregation of the United States' military forces. In 1939, Congress established the Civilian Pilot Training Program (CPTP), to prepare civilian pilots to assist during wartime emergencies. Willa Brown, as secretary of the NAAA, worked aggressively to promote black Americans' participation in the CPTP, the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), and the Army Air Corps.The War Department was firmly committed to recruiting black women to the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC); in fact, 80 blacks were among the 440 women of the Air WAAC's first officer-candidate class. But the Army's segregated-troop policy made assignment difficult; because black troops were required to move as a unit, talented individuals were often assigned to positions that required less training. Protracted debate as to whether women should even be in the military inhibited women's full participation in the armed services. The Women's Airforce Service Pilots (WASP), part of the U. S. Army Air Force, was headed by noted aviator Jacqueline Cochran. In her autobiography, The Stars at Noon, Cochran admitted that she rejected black applicants, believing that the military's acceptance of any female pilot was at best tenuous, and that to interject the issue of race might have caused the cancellation of the WASP program.During World War II, black women pilots were involved in the Civil Air Patrol, providing premilitary training and air-sea observation and rescue. Willa Brown became a lieutenant in the CAP; other black women pilots included American-born Earsly Taylor Barnett, who held Jamaica's first commercial pilot's license.Aviation MaturesAfter the Korean War, blacks began to be hired by commercial airlines, although legal action was needed to break many barriers. In 1957, Ruth Carol Taylor was hired by Mohawk Airlines as a flight attendant. The following spring, after efforts by the New York State Commission Against Discrimination, TWA hired Margaret Grant to be the first black flight attendant on a major passenger airline. However, few black women were hired as flight attendants until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.Throughout the 1960s, increased civil rights awareness continued to be the impetus which increased blacks' participation in the airline industry. Marlon Green's victorious lawsuit in 1965 against Continental Airlines won him the right to be hired as a commercial pilot. Increasingly, airlines as well as industry and government agencies hired black pilots, mechanics, and engineers.Civil rights initiatives in the late 1960s and early 1970s also began to increase the number of women flying for the military. In 1974, Jill E. Brown was the first black woman to be admitted to the U.S. Navy's flight school. Five years later, Marcella Hayes Ng completed helicopter flight training, the fifty-fifth woman and the first black woman to graduate from the U.S. Army's aviation school. In 1982, Theresa Claiborne became the first black female pilot in the U.S. Air Force.Overall, however, and despite these gains, numbers remained small: in the mid-1990s, only ten of the U.S. Navy's ten thousand aviators were black women. More recently, black women pilots moved into combat roles, piloting a range of aircraft which included the U.S. Air Force's F-16 jet fighters and the U.S. Marines' Super Cobra helicopters. Vernice Armour, who graduated at the top of her class when she earned her wings in July 2001, was the Marine Corps' first black female aviator; she served in combat during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003.Commercial aviation, which was largely the province of white men until equal employment opportunity legislation began to break down barriers of gender and race, has benefited from military-trained black women pilots. After Jill Brown left the Navy, she became the first black woman airline captain, flying for Texas International in 1978. At the time, there were only 110 black pilots flying for the airlines.Airlines' stringent requirements for application included not only a college degree, 1,500 hours flying time, and a commercial license with instrument and airline transport ratings, but also a height requirement; an otherwise qualified woman who stood less than 5960 or 5980, depending on the airline, was not acceptable. Military training, a traditional means by which pilots were able to log high hours when they did not have the personal financial resources to do so, was only just becoming accessible for women.Other Air Force–trained black women pilots include M'Lis Ward, who served on active duty with the Air Force during Operation Desert Storm, joined United Airlines in 1992, and was promoted to captain in 1999; Theresa Claiborne, who was the first black woman pilot in the Air Force and, as a civilian pilot, became first officer for United Airlines' 747s; and Stayce Harris, who, as a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force Reserve, was the first black woman to command a flight squadron; she, too, later flew for United Airlines.Not all commercial pilots are military-trained. Shirley Tyus began her aviation career as a flight attendant for United Airlines in the early 1970s before earning her pilot's license; in 1987, she became United Airlines' first black woman pilot. Patrice Clarke Washington became the first black woman captain of a major airline, United Parcel Service, in 1994. Washington was the first black woman graduate from Embry-Riddle University with a commercial pilot's rating.The International Society of Women Airline Pilots estimates that of the 80,000 airline pilots worldwide, approximately 4,000 are women. More than 450 of them are captains. Only 6 percent of pilots worldwide are women. According to the Organization of Black Airline Pilots, by the year 2000, about 1.5 percent of the United States' approximately 75,000 commercial pilots were black. About 5 percent were women. The percentage of commercial pilots who are black women is not known, although news reports have suggested that the number is less than two dozen.AerospaceThe racial integration of the space program paralleled efforts in military and commercial aviation. Two black American men were part of the space program during the 1960s, but NASA did not begin its concerted recruitment of women and minorities until the late 1970s, some years after the Apollo missions had landed men on the moon. NASA's recruitment campaign featured black actress Nichelle Nichols, who portrayed Lieutenant Uhura on the television series Star Trek. The 1978 group of thirty-five astronaut candidates included six white women and three black men.One of the first black women to become an aeronautical engineer, Christine Mann Darden joined NASA in the late 1960s, where she specializes in studying the effects of sonic boom on supersonic transport design. Patricia Cowings joined NASA in the early 1970s. Specializing in the use of biofeedback to combat motion sickness and adjust to weightless conditions, Cowings received scientist-astronaut training in the 1970s, the first American woman to do so. Although she never went into space, the training increased her understanding of the conditions astronauts undergo during flight. The first woman to receive a PhD in mechanical engineering from Howard University, Aprille Ericcson-Jackson became an aerospace engineer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, conducting computer simulations of spacecraft designs.Dr. Mae Jemison, who became the first black woman astronaut, joined NASA in 1987 and was a mission specialist on the shuttle Discovery in 1992, studying biofeedback techniques for the control of motion sickness. She left NASA in 1993 to pursue teaching and research projects.By 2004, the NASA astronaut corps included three more black women, Yvonne Cagle, Joan Higginbotham, and Stephanie D. Wilson. Although Higginbotham and Wilson were scheduled to be flight mission specialists, on a shuttle flight in the fall of 2003, all shuttle flights were postponed and placed under review following the 2003 Columbia disaster.
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