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Brave Bessie: Aviation Pioneer and Cultural Icon

  • Published
  • By Maj. Cory R. Henderson

The history of aviation is a story of innovation, ingenuity, and courage, starting with balloons and gliders and quickly advancing to combustion, jet, and rocket engines. However, aviation’s glory is not limited to novel feats of propulsion engineering and designs. It is more the contributions of the aviators themselves who shaped its history and created a unique culture that still inspires “airmindedness” to this day. This unique culture molded numerous industries and directly affected military battlefields, transportation, commerce, medicine, and more. It is no wonder that over its roughly 130 years, the aviation industry has had its fair share of heroes. Heroes have defined its cultural traits, transfixed the public, and transformed culture. One such hero is “Brave Bessie” Coleman, the first African American female stunt pilot. Her story highlights how an aviator can inspire needed cultural shifts in the industry both during and well after her time soaring the skies.  

“Brave Bessie” was born Bessie Coleman. She was one of thirteen children born in 1892 to African American sharecropper parents. Her hardscrabble childhood was typical for rural African American children of the time. However, her dedication, determination, and drive were far from typical. After hearing the war stories of her brothers returning from World War I, Brave Bessie became caught up in the excitement surrounding aviation, a new technology that transfixed many around the globe and in the United States. Her excitement made her determined to become a pilot, and her brothers’ stories of women being trained as pilots in France provided her the opportunity she needed, an opportunity not available to African Americans in the US at the time.

Brave Bessie dedicated herself to pursuing her dream. She poured herself into learning French while she continued to save money for her training at a French international pilot school.[1] At 29 years old, she achieved that dream of receiving her international pilot’s license and did so as Amelia Earhart was just beginning her flight lessons.[2] After obtaining her license, she returned to the US to become a stunt pilot and toured across the country. Her daring loops-the-loops and figure-eights in the skies entertained thousands and earned her the “Brave Bessie” moniker.

Brave though she was in her daring aerial performances, she stood her ground, too, using her celebrity to advocate for civil rights. During her shows, she refused to perform at any show “that didn’t allow blacks to attend” and “where Blacks were not allowed to use the front entrance.”[3] She was an advocate for desegregation well before President Truman‘s Executive Order 9981 integrating the U.S. military and promoting further societal change. She was famously quoted as saying, “the air is the only place free from prejudice.”[4] She made it her personal goal to provide others that freedom from prejudice and had plans to open her own flight school for men and women of color.  Sadly, Brave Bessie’s death in an accident only 5 years after obtaining her pilot’s license, cut short her push for equality both in the sky and on the ground. Despite her brief career, her story is one that inspires to this day.[5]

Her fatal accident contributed to early, and much needed, changes in the aviation industry. Brave Bessie died tragically as the result of a preventable aircraft accident in which a loose wrench jammed the controls and caused the plane to go into an uncontrolled spin. She was unrestrained during the spin and fell from the aircraft, 3,000 feet to the ground.[6] At the time of her accident, items like checklists, technical orders, preflight checks, etc. were in their infancy--if they existed at all. Due to her accident, and many more following it, the aviation industry began to develop a culture of safety. Crashes of more high-profile figures, following Coleman, throughout the 1920s, spurred the US government to become involved and develop federal regulations governing the safety of flight. Later that year, the "regulation of aircraft and pilots began with the Air Commerce Act of 1926,” a federal regulation which, if instituted only months earlier, might have saved her life.[7]

The Air Commerce Act required many of the items intrinsic to aviation industry safety today, like routine inspections meant to find problems such as the loose wrench in the airplane’s engine compartment of Coleman’s plane.[8]  Over time, to foster and mature this culture of safety, the federal government developed regulations that guided everything from routine checks of the plane’s airworthiness to preflight actions and the use of restraints to crewmember actions during critical phases of flight.[9]  The aviation industry would require many more mandates to achieve today’s safety-minded culture. 

Subsequently, private pilots have drawn lessons learned from nightmare scenarios like Coleman’s and developed their own methods of preventing accidents. John and Martha King, experienced private pilots and authors, have developed and promoted several acronym-based checklists that help pilots examine conditions, exposures, or pressures that may contribute to unsafe flight.[10] From early aviation tragedies to the 21st century, there is a legacy of identifying and mitigating the hazards of flight from ground level engineering and mechanics to flight level crew resource management and control of airspace. While not specifically the reason for both Federally mandated and self-led changes, Coleman's accident was one of many such losses of life that contributed to these much-needed innovations in the aviation industry and its shift towards a culture of safety.[11]  

While her death coincides with one shift in culture, her life represented the beginnings of another. This was the aspirational dream of creating an inclusive and diverse aviation industry. One of Coleman's motivations was to bring aviation to the women of the US, women of all colors. Part of her inspiration to perform such daring feats was to draw large crowds and generate enough money to open her own Black aviation school.[12] Sadly, she did not live to see the changed she inspired in aviation, including the foundation of the first African American Aero club in Los Angeles.[13] This Aero Club trained some of the future Tuskegee Airmen of World War II.[14] Coleman’s high profile aviation career launched tremendous changes, even if she never got to see them.

In aviation, there are three general cultural traits that have come to define the industry and its employees: safety focus, willingness to learn and flexibility.[15] Along with being a cause of safety reform, Coleman embodied and advocated for education and change.  She overcame restrictions on her ability to learn to fly by learning French and moving to where instruction was open to women and people of color.  After being licensed, she trained with former WWI fighter pilots in Germany, seeking out the expertise of a former enemy nation. She didn’t just want a pilot’s license for herself, her dream was to enable others to achieve it through her own flight school welcoming to all. Many flight clubs and schools opened in her honor, and her story continues to draw diverse interest in aviation, including retired Col. Merryl Tengesdal, the first African American woman to fly the U-2, who noted, “Like her [Coleman], I like to push myself to that next level. How far can I take it? How much better can I be as a pilot?”[16]

Knowing she could not obtain her dream in a segregated and racially charged US, she flexibly pursued the options available to her. License in hand, and using her celebrity for positive change, she pushed for a more racially tolerant US by mandating desegregation at her air shows. Even now, more young women of color learn about her and become inspired to achieve aviation greatness. She is the focus of museum exhibits, postage stamps, and even her own Barbie doll.[17] Just this year, she appeared on the US quarter as part of the US Mint’s American Women Quarters release and her image is literally in the hands of the next generation of airminded dreamers.[18] Her powerful legacy is at work more than a century after she began her aviation journey.

While her career in aviation was short, Brave Bessie’s contributions to aviation continued to build a stronger, safer, more inclusive culture. Whether it is how her accidental death highlighted much needed changes in safety or how she soared over sexist and racist barriers, her career helped change the norms of flying and attracted subsequent generations of heroes and pioneers. Her embodiment of the enduring key traits of flexibility and willingness to learn cement her legacy as one of aviation’s early heroes as well as a continuing beacon for positive evolution in flight.

The research originated in the ACSC elective, Leading Aviation for All

Major (Dr.) Cory Henderson: Major Henderson has previously served in several embedded flight and special operations medical roles and served as the flight commander in charge of multiple Flight Medicine clinics. He earned a Masters in Physician Assistant Studies from the Interservice Physician Assistant Program, Doctorate in Health Education from A.T. Still University, and is currently pursuing his Masters of Military Operational Arts and Sciences from Air Command and Staff College in Montgomery, Alabama. His experience includes clinical and command roles in flight and operational medicine roles that span undergraduate pilot training, special operations, presidential support, mobility, and readiness.    

[1] Kerri Alexander and Rebecca Ljungren, “Bessie Coleman 1892-1926,” National Women’s History Museum, Dec 2022.

[2] Humanities Texas, “Pilot ‘Brave Bessie’ Coleman,” Houston Public Media, 1 Jul 2016.

[6] Kerri Alexander and Rebecca Ljungren, “Bessie Coleman 1892-1926,” National Women’s History Museum, Dec 2022.

[7] Dennis Parks, “The First Regulations,” General Aviation News, 23 Oct 2011.

[9] Bob Gardner, The Complete Private Pilot, 12th ed., (Newcastle, WA: Aviation Supplies & Academics, 2016), 4-14 – 4-15.

[10] John King, “After We Had Our Accident,” King Schools, 5 May 2014.

[11] Matthew Johnston, “What Does Aviation Culture Entail?,” California Aeronautical University, 19 Mar 2020.

[12] Humanities Texas, “Pilot ‘Brave Bessie’ Coleman,” Houston Public Media, 1 Jul 2016.

[13] Gabrielle Barone, “Bessie Coleman: Barnstorming Through Barriers,” National Air and Space Museum, 15 Jun 2018.

[14] Palm Springs Air Museum, “Bessie Coleman,” 2022.

[15] Matthew Johnston, “What Does Aviation Culture Entail?,” California Aeronautical University, 19 Mar 2020.

[17] Gabrielle Barone, “Bessie Coleman: Barnstorming Through Barriers,” National Air and Space Museum, 15 Jun 2018;  “Flight: Bessie Coleman,” Smithsonian National Postal Museum, 27 Apr 1995; Mattel, “Barbie Doll: Bessie Coleman, Barbie Inspiring Women Series,”

[18] American Women Quarters, “Bessie Coleman Quarter,” US Mint, 18 Oct 2022.

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