Willa Brown Chappell

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Willa Brown Chappell


Sandra K. Gorin, Gorin Genealogical Publishing   Volume 2 of Barren's Black Roots, Michelle Gorin Burris, (c) Aug 1992). By permission of the author.


Willa Beatrice Brown was born in 1906 in Glasgow, Kentucky. She graduated from Wiley High School in Terre Haute, Indiana in 1923, attended Indiana State Teachers College and was, at age 21, the youngest high school teacher in the Gary, Indiana schools.


In an era harsh for both women and African Americans, she sought great challenge. Influenced by aviatrix Bessie Coleman, in 1934 Willa began flight lessons at Chicago's Aeronautical University. She studied with Cornelius R. Coffey at the racially segregated Harlem Field in Chicago.


By 1935, she received her master mechanic's certificate, joined the Challenger Air Pilot's Association, joined the Chicago Girl's Flight Club, and enrolled in a master's program at Northwestern University.


In 1937, airman's certificate No. 43814 made her the first African American woman to be licensed as a private pilot in the United States. She also received her MBA from Northwestern and co-founded, with Coffey, the National Airmen's Association of America to promote interest in aviation… and to help get black aviation cadets into the US Military as pilots.


In 1940, Brown advocated the inclusion of African Americans in the Civilian Pilot Training Program. In 1941, she was named federal coordinator of the Chicago unit of the Civil Air Patrol civilian pilot training program, the first African American officer in this integrated unit.


The Coffey School was selected to provide black trainees for the Air Corps' pilot training program at Tuskegee Institute. As school director, Brown was instrumental in training more than 200 students who went on to become the legendary Tuskegee airmen.


Willa was also coordinator of war-training service for the Civil Aeronautics Authority. And in 1943, she became the first woman in the United States who possessed both a mechanic's license and a commercial license in aviation.


She married the Rev. J. H. Chappell in 1955 and taught school until 1971. In 1972, she was appointed to the FAA Women's Advisory Board. Her love for aviation continued until her death in 1992 at age 86.


In 2002 she was named one of Women in Aviation's 100 Most Influential Women in Aviation and Aerospace. Willa Brown Chappell's accomplishments as aviatrix, business leader, and teacher will continue to inspire generations to come.


Courtesy: 2003 Enshrinees, Kentucky Aviation Hall of Fame.


The Courier-Journal, Tuesday, Juy 21, 1992, p. B4

Black aviation forerunner Willa Brown Chapell dies


“Chicago: - Pioneer black aviator Willa Brown Chappell, a Kentucky native who helped break down racial barriers in the U.S. military, has died at age 86.


“A resident of Chicago’s South Side, Chapell died Saturday of a stroke at Bernard Mitchell Hospital. She was born in Glasgow and received her bachelor’s degree from Indiana State Teacher’s College in 1932 and her master’s degree from Northwestern University in 1938.


“She formed the National Airmen’s Association of America, the first black aviators’ group in 1940 after receiving her pilot’s certificate in 1939 in Chicago. With her husband, Cornelius R. Coffey, Chappell opened the first flight school owned and operated by blacks – the Coffey School of Aeronautics in Oak Lawn, a Chicago suburb. The school closed after World War II.


“In 1940, at the request of the U. S. military, the school conducted a test program aimed at proving that blacks could become successful pilots and flight instructors. That program led to the creation of the 99th Pursuit Squadron at Tuskegee Institute, the military’s first black pilots.


“Chappell “really was a great leader in the push to get the ban lifted on African-American pilots in the armed forces,” said Michael Flug, an archivist for the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection of black history at the Chicago Public Library.


““In the ‘20s and’30s, the U. S. armed forces did not allow African-Americans to become pilots, period,” Flug said. “The school helped convince the government that blacks could successfully be pilots. That effort forced the War Department to look differently at the situation.”


“Chappell trained hundreds of black aviators before and during the war. She also served in the U. S. Army Air Corps’ Civil Air Patrol.


“After the war, she taught in Chicago’s public schools, retiring in the 1970s. She was also active in the Chicago Urban League.”