Women in Aviation: Pioneers and Chicago Connections

I was thrilled earlier this month to hear the news that 19-year-old British-Belgian pilot Zara Rutherford successfully completed her goal of flying around the world solo. She broke two Guinness World Records in the process, becoming the youngest woman to achieve this feat and doing it in a microlight aircraft.

She began her journey on August 18, 2021 and landed at Kortrijk-Wevelgem Airport in Belgium on January 22, 2022. In addition to breaking records, she set a goal to “ensure greater visibility for women in aviation." I can’t help but wonder if she knows that two other female aviation pioneers, with ties to Chicago, have special birth anniversary years in 2022.

Bessie Coleman (January 26, 1892-April 30, 1926)

Elizabeth (Bessie) Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas. She was an avid reader and good student. While a student, she took in laundry and put her savings towards a college education. She attended Langston University in Langston, Oklahoma for one semester, until her funds ran out.

Between 1912 and 1917, she relocated to Chicago, joining two brothers living in the city. She studied manicuring and took a job at the White Sox Barber Shop on the “Stroll,” an eight-block stretch of State Street between 26th and 29th Streets with many Black-owned businesses. This was where she met Robert Abbott, founder and publisher of the Chicago Defender. This was also the time she decided she wanted to fly. She had read and heard stories of World War I flying aces and women pilots in Europe, and was determined to make her place in the sky.

Turned away from American aviation schools because she was Black, Abbott encouraged her to learn to fly in Europe. Financially supported by Abbott and banker Jesse Binga, Coleman left the United States for France in November 1920. In 1921, she earned her pilot’s license and became the first African-American female pilot. After a short trip home, she returned to Europe for additional training, and in 1922 she became the first woman to win an international pilot’s license.

Coleman was a sensation in America, traveling across the country performing barnstorming flight shows and stunts. Her talents were advertised in the Defender and elsewhere and she came to be known as Brave Bessie.

On April 20, 1926, Coleman was making a test flight with mechanic William Wills. After 12 minutes in flight, Wills attempted a nosedive. Coleman was launched from the plane and fell to her death. The plane crashed, and Wills was also killed. Coleman’s body was returned to Illinois where she was buried at Lincoln Cemetery in Blue Island. She was only 34. This year, in 2022, we celebrate the 130th anniversary of her birth.

Amelia Earhart (July 24, 1897-July 1937)

Amelia Mary Earhart was born in Atchison, Kansas. Her family moved throughout the Midwest during her teen years. For a time, they lived in Chicago, and Earhart attended and graduated from Hyde Park High School in 1916. After a few semesters at a junior college, then service as a nurse’s aide at Spadina Military Hospital, she enrolled as a premed student at Columbia University, but left to join her parents who had relocated to Los Angeles.

In December 1920, she visited an airfield with her father and took a ride with pilot Frank Hawks. The next month, she had her first flying lesson. By October 1922, she flew to an altitude of 14,000 feet, setting a world record for female pilots. In 1923, she earned her international pilot’s license, the 16th woman to do so. She continued setting records, including her most famous 1932 first female solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic.

In March 1937, Earhart and pilot Paul Mantz began a round-the-world flight, but had to abort due to mechanical issues. Earhart made her second attempt at a round-the-world flight with navigator Fred Noonan later that summer. The trip was not completed. Earhart’s plane was last sighted on July 2, 1937 near Lae, New Guinea. She and Noonan were declared lost at sea. Born just five and a half years after Bessie Coleman, we celebrate Earhart’s 125th birth anniversary this year.

The field of aviation is full of many women, and several with Chicago connections. Coleman and Earhart are just two pioneers in their field. Learn more about African Americans in aviation, like Dr. Mae Jemison in the Betty Gubert Collection of African Americans in Aviation at the Vivian G. Harsh Research Collection at Woodson Regional Library, or see Amelia Earhart's high school photo in the Hyde Park Community Collection in the Special Collections and Preservation Division at Harold Washington Library Center.