Almost every hero has a hero - a larger-than-life figure whose story of courage or perseverance in a specific situation(s) challenged that person to step up and try something difficult or new to him or her. Over the years in numerous interviews, many Tuskegee Airmen indicated that one of their heroes was really a heroine - the first black woman pilot, Bessie Coleman.
While they could appreciate her skills as a pilot, it was what she had to do to become one that got their attention. Born in 1892, she was one of 13 children. Airplanes had not even been invented at the time she was born, but she became fascinated by them during her teenage years. She saved the money she earned as a manicurist and tried to find a flight school that would teach her to fly. No luck. Not even individual pilots would take her on. She had two strikes against her in the United States of that time - she was black and she was a woman. So, in 1920, she booked passage and sailed to France where racial and gender discrimination was not an obstacle to a woman focused on becoming a pilot.
She earned her pilot's license and honed her flying skills before returning to the U.S. in 1922. Her goal was to earn enough money through appearances at air shows and in lecture halls to open a flight school for black students. For four years, she traveled the country, wowing the crowds air acrobatic stunts and entertaining talks (and saving her money).
However, in 1926 the dream died when Coleman was flying an older airplane (but new to her) the day before an air show in Jacksonville, FL. She was planning to parachute out of the plane the next day so didn't have her safety belt fastened; she wanted look over the side of the plane to check out the landing terrain. As she and her co-pilot were putting the plane through the program they would present the following day, the plane malfunctioned, went into a steep tailspin and Coleman fell out of the plane to her death. Her male co-pilot perished in the ensuing crash and fire. Coleman was 33.
Her life was cut short but she had blazed a trail that would inspire future Tuskegee Airmen.
For more about Bessie Coleman, check out http://www.bessiecoleman.com
Profile - The CAF Red Tail Project
- CAF Red Tail Squadron
- South St. Paul, MN, United States
- The mission of the Commemorative Air Force's (CAF) Red Tail Squadron is to preserve and share the history and legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen, America's first black military pilots. The Airmen served with distinction during WWII (and beyond). They overcame racism on the ground to fight fascism in the air, fighting for a country that turned a blind eye to policies and a large population that discriminated against these men and their families because of the color of their skin. The CAF Red Tail Squadron restored and flies a red-tailed P-51C Mustang such as the Airmen flew during WWII. The airplane appears at air shows in North America and at each stop her crew tells the story of the Airmen and how through persistence and courage they overcame huge obstacles in order to serve in the military. In 2011, the CAF Red Tail Squadron developed a traveling exhibit called "RISE ABOVE" to educate people - especially young people - about the Airmen and how they demonstrated the importance of setting goals and overcoming obstacles in order to succeed.