Flashmag Digizine Edition Issue 96 August 2019 - Page 142

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She completed only one term before she ran out of money and was forced to return home. Coleman knew there was no future for her in her home town, so she went to live with two of her brothers in Chicago while she looked for a job.

In 1915, at the age of twenty-three, Coleman moved to Chicago, Illinois, where she lived with her brothers and she worked at the White Sox Barber Shop as a manicurist. There, she heard tales of the world from pilots who were returning home from World War I. They told stories about flying in the war, and Coleman started to fantasize about being a pilot. Her brother used to tease her by commenting that French women were better than African-American women because French women were pilots already. She could not gain admission to American flight schools because she was black and a woman. No black U.S. aviator would train her either. Robert S. Abbott, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender, encouraged her to study abroad. Coleman received financial backing from Jesse Binga (a banker) and the Defender, which capitalized on her flamboyant personality and her beauty to promote the newspaper, and to promote her cause.

Coleman took French language class at the Berlitz School in Chicago, and then traveled to Paris

on November 20, 1920. Coleman learned to fly in a Nieuport Type 82 biplane, with "a steering system that consisted of a vertical stick the thickness of a baseball bat in front of the pilot and a rudder bar under the pilot's feet." On June 15, 1921, Coleman became not only the first African-American woman to earn an international aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, but the first African American woman in the world to earn an aviation pilot's license. Determined to polish her skills, Coleman spent the next two months taking lessons from a French ace pilot near Paris, and in September 1921, sailed for New York. She became a media sensation when she returned to the United States.

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 need to become a "barnstorming" stunt flier, and perform for paying audiences.

But to succeed in this highly competitive arena, she would need advanced lessons and a more extensive repertoire. Returning to Chicago, Coleman could find no one willing to teach her, so in February 1922, she sailed again for Europe. She spent the next two months in France completing an advanced course in aviation, then left for the Netherlands to meet with Anthony Fokker, one of the world's most distinguished aircraft designers. She also traveled to Germany, where she visited the Fokker Corporation and received additional training from one of the company's chief pilots. She returned to the United States with the confidence and enthusiasm she needed to launch her career in exhibition flying.

"Queen Bess," as she was known, was a highly popular draw for the next five years. Invited to important events and often interviewed by newspapers, she was admired by both blacks and whites. She primarily flew Curtiss JN-4 "Jenny" biplanes and army surplus aircraft left over from the war. She made her first appearance in an American airshow on September 3, 1922, at an event honoring veterans of the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment of World War I. Held at Curtiss Field on Long Island near New York City and sponsored by her friend Abbott and the Chicago Defender newspaper, the show billed Coleman as "the world's greatest woman flier" and featured aerial displays by eight other American ace pilots, and a jump by black parachutist Hubert Julian. Six weeks later she returned to Chicago to deliver a stunning demonstration of daredevil maneuvers—including figure eights, loops, and near-ground dips—to a large and enthusiastic crowd at the Checkerboard Airdrome (now Chicago Midway Airport).

But the thrill of stunt flying and the admiration of cheering crowds were only part of Coleman's dream. Coleman never lost sight of her childhood vow to one day "amount to something." As a professional aviator, Coleman would often be criticized by the press for her opportunistic nature and the flamboyant style she brought to her exhibition flying.

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