Honoring Bessie Coleman, American Crews A Flight With All Black Women


This week, American Airlines operated a flight out of Dallas crewed entirely by Black women, including pilots, flight attendants, cargo handlers and maintenance technicians. The flight was in honor of the 100th anniversary (plus one year due to COVID) of aviation pioneer Bessie Coleman receiving her pilot’s certificate, the first, ever, for a Black woman. Coleman’s great niece Gigi Coleman was on board the flight, hosted by the airline.

According to American, Black women currently represent less than 1 percent of personnel at all levels of the commercial airline industry, a disparity the airline hopes to alleviate.

Born in Atlanta, Texas, in 1892, Coleman left the cotton fields of Oklahoma at age 23 to join her two older brothers in Chicago where one of them, a World War I combat veteran, goaded her with tales of French women who had learned to fly airplanes. She took French lessons and traveled to Europe, where she earned her international pilot’s license in June 1921, awarded by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. She used her influence in the following years to encourage other Black Americans to fly—boycotting airshows at locations that would not admit African Americans. She was killed in 1926 when she fell from another pilot’s Curtiss JN1 “Jenny” while preparing it for an airshow. It was found that a loose wrench jammed the controls, causing the pilot (who was also killed) to lose control.

Gigi Coleman told the airline, “I am grateful for American Airlines to give us this opportunity to highlight my great aunt’s accomplishments in the field of aviation.”

Mark Phelps
Mark Phelps is a senior editor at AVweb. He is an instrument rated private pilot and former owner of a Grumman American AA1B and a V-tail Bonanza.

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    • Actually Jethro, if, as you say, equity and parity mattered they would want half of all employees in the company to be people of color. This flight is a small but significant gesture on the part of American Airlines that should not be lightly dismissed. Systematic discrimination against Black people has been a dominant part of aviation and the airlines since the beginning. Perhaps American and the other airlines should follow the lead of the RAF in prioritizing diversity in their recruiting.

      • Regardless of feelings or past events, It’s illegal in the USA to base hiring on race or gender. Doing so is not only illegal, but it’s also a slap in the face to all who worked in the civil rights movement.

  1. That is an interesting gesture by American Airlines; especially in light of the fact that Bessie Coleman fought against holding single-race aviation events whilst she was alive.

  2. Question: does an aircraft fly differently depending on the color of the skin of its pilot? I once had the honor of dining with Dr. Ben Carson and his charming (and funny) wife Candy. He said, when performing brain surgery on a patient, that once a portion of their skull had been removed, they all looked alike. When can we all just be Americans, and not a color?

  3. I love this. Yes, it’s just a gesture, but a gesture that recongizes a woman who bravely pursued a significant accomplishment, in spite of what must have been considerable obstacles in 1921. (And while I’m in the Comments section, I would like to applaud AvWeb’s announcement about cleaning it up. It’s gotten ridiculous lately. Sadly, some of the readers who have already commented on this article still don’t quite get it.)

    • It’s also illegal to base hiring decisionssons on race an gender. I assume that American Airlines is just making a verbal marketing gesture (since they would be in direst opposition to hard won civil rights laws IF they actually did institute race in a hiring policy). Keep the dream alive.

  4. Only the future will show. But one of the options that is opened should be exactly the one pointed by Stu P.. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen.

  5. Sorry, that’s just not true. I say this as a dad of a 15 year old girl, who I have observed being influenced by teachers and individuals in position of power about what jobs she should be interested in or what she wouldn’t like. I’m tired of having to have that conversation with her that those people don’t know what they are talking about. People with outdated mindsets are still influencing young people about what careers they should or shouldn’t pursue. Sadly, it appears now that she will be following her mom into a nursing degree instead of her dad into aviation because of this.

  6. This is great. Wish that I could have been on the flight.

    I was on the American Airlines flight on a 727 from Wichita to Chicago in about 1986 or so that was the first airline flight in the world to have an all-woman flight crew. Was just a routine flight – I only learned that it was a glass-ceiling breaking event as the flight was taxiing in at ORD and the lead flight attendant made an announcement. The passengers all applauded vigorously.

    A month or two later the cover photo on the 99’s magazine was of the flight crew standing in front of the jet at the gate at O’Hare.

    Having been in professional aviation for over 10 years by then, I’d certainly seen some of the incredible hassles faced by women and minorities trying to get into aviation at all or get hired to fly professionally. I’d seen too many male instructors refuse to fly with women or try to hustle them into bed rather than behave professionally and listened to far too many Part 135 chief pilots say that they wouldn’t hire women or blacks. It was just plain ugly. That flight from Wichita to Chicago that morning was a little ray of sunshine.

  7. Okay, I give up, where is the political part of the story? It is basically a simple human interest story about honoring an aviation pioneer with a one-time gesture.

    I do agree with you about AvWeb taking the stance to remove off-topic and abusive comments from their articles. It is a fine line to have to walk between censorship and the open free-for-all that the comments have become recently. I must admit that I was very close to deleting AvWeb from my browser because I had grown tired of all the negative and derogatory rhetoric that had taken over the comments. I welcome the input of people who know the subject and have something relevant to add, whether I agree with them or not. But the personal derogatory insults and party-bashing that pops up in almost every story blaming the current administration for everything from bad weather to dental cavities had gone too far.

    • The story of support and recognition for an individual is all fine and good. However, when the same article is calling for an illegal hiring practice, then it deservedly SHOULD be denounced.

  8. I don’t see the political aspect of this article about which some commenters have complained. There is nothing in the article about government or parties. It’s about race and gender and celebrating the accomplishments of a particular individual. There is also nothing illegal about what American Airlines did. They did not develop or promote any policy regarding race- or gender-based hiring or scheduling. I think it’s perfectly appropriate to recognize and celebrate Bessie Coleman in this manner.

  9. You start with Bessie Coleman, move to the Tuskegee Airman of WWII who, when it was the worst of it in the air, bombers wanted them there, Nichelle Nichols, who not only showed what a black actress can do in a SciFi role, but inspired many others to follow in her path. She directly helped inspire over a 1000 minorities into the space program which led to the first male black astronaut in space as commander, then the first black woman in space.

    Hell, before Ms Coleman was maybe someone who inspired her, but that is not the point.

    Skin color does not matter.
    Gender does not matter.

    How you do your job, how you comport yourself, and how you treat others…

    That is what matters.

    I may not like American Airlines for a number of reasons (and I tremble that I have to fly with them out of GSP given their cancellation numbers), but I applaud that they made an effort to honor an incredible American, an amazing aviator, and a strong spirit.

  10. Celebrating segregation… weird. Sorry, but this entire post is odd and racist. So, what are we to take from this? Wow, women can do stuff without a man?… and hey look they are all black, no whites needed either to operate a commercial flight.
    I would like to point out, I was on many all black operated commercial flights in the 90s. I guess those weren’t ‘historic’ enough because they were in countries where the majority of the population was black.
    Yea, these types of ‘historic’ themes should be left to the 1850s. It would be more odd today for an all white male crew.

    • An all Black crew in many countries with white minorities would also be historic if the pilots were women. You are right though that in America it is historic because of our racist history and that it signals a change in the historic exclusion of Blacks from the “white space” of aviation.

      • The USA overcame the mess created by British, Spanish and French colonies and created a new country that eventually codified, into law, that hiring based on race was illegal. This DOES signal a change; but in the wrong direction…