Throwback Thursday – Willa Brown: The First Black American Female Pilot

Throwback Thursday this week is back at Aviation Heritage Park in Bowling Green. Dedicated to a pioneer in aviation and the first Black woman to get a pilot’s license, this week we’re telling the local story of Willa Beatrice Brown.

Born in nearby Glasgow in 1906, Willa Brown and her family moved to Indiana when she was child. She was a tenacious woman who worked hard to be the best in every field she attempted. By 21, she was the youngest high school teacher in the Gary, Ind., school system.

In 1934, she started flight lessons at Chicago’s Aeronautical Flight University. By 1938, she was the first Black licensed female pilot in the country. She co-founded the National Airmen’s Association of America with her husband, Cornelius Coffey. Together, the two opened the first Black airmen school, the Cornelius School of Aeronautics in Chicago.

Brown and her husband were leaders with progressing Black airmen involvement in World War II, pushing the War Department to act, lift the ban on Black pilots, and train Air Corps pilots at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Brown then trained more than 200 students in the famous Tuskegee outfit. 

Her plane of choice was the J-3 Cub, and a restored one of these traveled to Bowling Green for the Hangar Party last year. It told the story of Willa Brown’s role in American aviation history, as she was appointed one of the 100 Most Influential Women of Aerospace by the FAA.

Willa Brown was inducted into the Aviation Museum of Kentucky’s Hall of Fame in 2003.