The Google Doodle today marks the 125th anniversary of Bessie Coleman’s birth. Bessie was an American civil aviator. She was the first female pilot of African-American descent and was also the first African-American woman to hold a pilot license. “Queen Bess,” as she was known, was a highly popular draw at air shows. Born in 1892, the tenth of thirteen children to Texas sharecroppers, she had to travel to France to learn to fly. Learn more about Bessie in the Smithsonian Channel video below.
According to Wikipedia; Coleman quickly realized that in order to make a living as a civilian aviator—the age of commercial flight was still a decade or more in the future—she would have to become a “barnstorming” stunt flier, and perform for paying audiences. She became well known as “Queen Bess,” primarily flying a Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” biplane and other aircraft which had been army surplus aircraft left over from the Great War. She made her first appearance in an American airshow in 1922, at an event honoring veterans of the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment of World War I. Held at Curtiss Field on Long Island. The show billed her as “the world’s greatest woman flier” and featured eight other American ace pilots, as well as a jump by black parachutist Hubert Julian.
She was killed in 1926 at the age of 34 while performing at an air show in Jacksonville, Florida. She had recently purchased a Curtiss JN-4 (Jenny) in Dallas. Her mechanic and publicity agent, 24-year-old William D. Wills, flew the plane from Dallas in preparation for the airshow but had to make three forced landings enroute because the plane had been so poorly maintained. At the time of the accident Wills was flying the plane. Coleman in the other seat was not wearing her seatbelt because she was planning a parachute jump the next day and wanted to look over the cockpit sill to examine the terrain. A few minutes into the flight the plane unexpectedly dove forward and into a spin. Coleman was thrown from the plane at 2,000 ft (610 m) and was killed while William Wills, unable to regain control was killed on impact. Although the wreckage of the plane was badly burned, it was later discovered that a wrench used to service the engine had jammed the controls. Coleman was 34 years old.
“Because of Bessie Coleman,” wrote Lieutenant William J. Powell in Black Wings 1934, “we have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream.” Powell served in a segregated unit during World War I, and tirelessly promoted the cause of black aviation through his book, his journals, and the Bessie Coleman Aero Club, which he founded in 1929.