All-Black Female Flight Crew Honors Bessie Coleman
In 1921, Coleman became the first Black woman to earn a pilot’s license.
By Sydney Page
It’s been more than a century since Bessie Coleman made history, becoming the first Black woman in the world to earn a pilot’s license. Recently, an all-Black female flight crew made history in her honor.
On Aug. 8, an American Airlines flight from Dallas-Fort Worth — near where Coleman grew up — to Phoenix was operated by the airline’s first-ever all-Black female crew.
The 36 staff members had roles ranging from captain to customer service coordinator. The crew, including flight attendants, cargo team and aviation maintenance technicians, worked on the flight as a gesture of respect and admiration toward Coleman, who had a short but storied career.
Coleman, the daughter of sharecroppers, received her pilot’s license in 1921. She learned to fly in France, as there were no opportunities for Black Americans, Native Americans or women in the United States. Coleman, who was all three, died at age 34 when a test flight she was a passenger on crashed in 1926.
As a pioneering pilot, Coleman — often referred to as “Brave Bessie” and “Queen Bess” — broke racial and gender barriers in the exclusive aviation industry. Throughout her career, she fought against racism, and was known for saying: “I refuse to take no for an answer.” She wouldn’t let her gender or race stand in the way of her pursuits.
But still today, the aviation industry remains mostly homogenous. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 93 percent of America’s pilots and flight engineers identify as White, and just over 10 percent as Black, Hispanic or Asian. Only 5.3 percent of pilots and flight engineers are women, and of them, less than 1 percent are Black.
Coleman’s family hopes to honor her legacy by encouraging future generations of Black women to follow in her footsteps, they said, and the all-Black female flight crew is part of that mission.
The flight’s destination was Phoenix because it was one of the many places Coleman performed in an air show during her career.
Beth Powell, an American Airlines employee of 22 years, was the flight captain. Like Coleman, Powell had dreams of flying an airplane from the time she was a child.
During her pilot training in Vero Beach, Fla., “I was the only Black girl there,” she recalled. “It did feel lonely. There were times where you questioned yourself, because you didn’t see anyone that looked like you.”
“It was very important to me, from a young age, to go back to the community and tell them what they can do,” Powell, 45, said. “That’s where I find the most pride and joy, in speaking to the next generation, and telling them what they can become.”
Throughout her career, she has been involved with organizations that seek to diversify the flight deck, including Sisters of the Skies and the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP). When Bessie Coleman Aviation All-Stars — a nonprofit started by Coleman’s family — launched a tour to mark the 100-year anniversary of Coleman’s pilot license, the foundation asked Powell and American Airlines to host a flight in her honor.
Before takeoff, as Powell and the crew walked through the airport, she said she felt as though Coleman was with them.
“When I looked to my left and I looked to my right, we were no longer the only ones,” Powell said. “We all made it in our own right. We are all here as Black women. We are channeling Bessie’s dream.”
Gigi Coleman, Coleman’s great-niece, took part in the flight as a passenger, and said “it would have meant the world,” to her great-aunt — whose accomplishments were not celebrated during her lifetime due to discrimination and racism, she said.
“We’ve come a long way since Bessie Coleman,” said Gigi Coleman, 64, who is the president of Bessie Coleman Aviation All-Stars. “I think my great-aunt would have been so proud of these beautiful, talented, courageous women of color. They were soaring through the blue skies, just like she did, and telling the world that we can accomplish anything in life by working together.”
As the crew touched down in Phoenix, “we were in tears,” Powell said. “We did it. We honored Bessie. And now we have shown others, too, what they can become.”
American Airlines offers financial support and mentorship to prospective pilots through its Cadet Academy, which works to bring more diversity in the field. The airline also announced a $1.5 million donation to OBAP, which will be set aside to train pilots with diverse backgrounds.
Powell said representation is critical to inspire young people of color to enter the aerospace workforce.
“People can see themselves in us,” she said.
Following the flight, several members of the crew met with high school students at the Academies at South Mountain in Phoenix, to discuss careers in aviation — and demonstrate what’s possible.
“It’s really empowering to go back and talk to the kids,” Powell said. “This is my why and my purpose.”
Gigi Coleman believes it was her great-aunt’s purpose, too.
“The main goal of the Bessie Coleman Aviation All-Stars is to expose young people to aviation careers,” said Gigi Coleman, who shared Bessie Coleman’s story with students at the school. “The doors are wide open for them now. The sky is not the limit.”
Image: American Airlines