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
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
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,
Black aviation forerunner Willa Brown
“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
“After the war, she taught in Chicago’s
public schools, retiring in the 1970s. She
was also active in the Chicago Urban