Willa Brown: The First Black American Woman to Earn Both a Pilot’s License and a Commercial License


Years after relocating to Chicago, I learned about Bessie Coleman, the first black woman to obtain a pilot’s license in the United States in 1921. Her narrative inspired me, as were many others, but it wasn’t until last week that I discovered about Willa Brown, a pioneering black female pilot from Chicago.

Although Willa Brown’s aviation accomplishments were equally as noteworthy as Coleman’s, for some reason, her life’s work was not as well-known or appreciated. Only after conducting my study did I learn that Brown, who was instrumental in developing the Civilian Pilot Training Program during the Second World War, was the first black woman in America to obtain both a pilot’s certificate and a commercial license.

Early Life and Education

Willa Brown was born in Glasgow, Kentucky, in 1906. Her parents were both educators, and she grew up in a family that highly valued education. She graduated with a degree in education from Indiana State Teachers College (now known as Indiana State University).

After earning her BA from Indiana Teachers College in 1927 and her MBA from Northwestern University in 1937, Brown enlisted the support of Chicago Defender Publisher/Editor Robert Abbott, who had also aided Bessie Coleman in pursuing her dreams of becoming an aviator. She obtained her private pilot’s license in 1938 while studying with certified flight teacher and aviation mechanic Cornelius Coffey. She passed her test with a nearly perfect score of 96% and then received her commercial license in 1939.

Personal Life

Due to her subsequent marriage following her first divorce, Willa Brown is occasionally called Willa Beatrice Brown Chappell. After divorcing her first husband, Charles Anderson, in 1947, she wed Claude Chappell, an insurance dealer. “Chappell” was her second married name as a result.

Aviation Career Beginnings

In the 1930s, Brown became involved with the Chicago Civil Air Patrol, which sparked her interest in flying. She also joined the National Airmen’s Association of America, a group for black flyers. She took flying lessons and obtained her pilot’s license through this group in 1938.

Willa Brown

She joined the Civil Air Patrol in 1941 and became its first African American officer. (CAP). The US government also gave her the title of federal coordinator for the CAP Chicago section. She obtained a mechanic’s certificate and a commercial aviation license two years later, making her the first woman in the country to do so.

Major Achievements

Willa Brown obtained her commercial pilot’s certificate in 1939, making history as the first black woman in America. It was challenging for women and people of color to enter the aviation industry then, which was a significant accomplishment. Due to Brown’s success, more women and people of color were able to enter the aircraft industry.

Brown was a civilian aviator for the US Army Air Forces during World War II. She also contributed to developing the Civilian Pilot Instruction Program, which gave aspiring pilots flight instructions. This initiative was crucial for the war effort and for providing women and minorities access to careers in aviation.

As the first African American officer in the Civil Air Patrol, Brown later advanced to Lieutenant. In addition to serving on the Women’s Advisory Board of the Federal Aviation Administration, Brown founded the National Airmen’s Association of America in 1939 and, by 1943, was the only woman in the country to hold both a mechanic’s and a commercial pilot’s license.

Brown in Politics

Later in adulthood, Brown ran for Congress as the first African American woman. ( 1946 as a Republican). Despite her failure, she made two additional attempts in 1948 and 1950. As part of her political platform in the late 1940s, she also launched an effort to build a Black-owned and -operated airport in the Chicago area.


Beyond her accomplishments, Willa Brown made numerous advances in aviation. In addition to working to advance aviation education, she continued to be a champion for women and minorities in the industry. She helped establish the Coffey School of Aeronautics, which trained black pilots, and the National Airmen’s Association of America.

Young people, especially girls and people of color, are still motivated to seek careers in aviation by Brown’s legacy. She was admitted to the National Flight Hall of Fame in 2013, where she is honored as a flight pioneer and an inspiration to younger generations.

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