Thursday, June 18, 2015

Bessie Coleman Honored in France

Ninety-four years ago, Bessie Coleman was granted her international aviation license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale in Le Crotoy, France. She was the first woman of African descent to earn a pilot's license.

Bessie Coleman - photo used for her aviation license
Public domain

Because she was unable to obtain the training she sought in the United States, Coleman traveled to France on November 20, 1920 with the hope of enrolling in an aviation school that was located near Paris. However, she was refused entry due to the recent deaths of two female student pilots. Undaunted, she continued her search and found an aviation school in the Picardy region of France that accepted her application.

According to biographer Doris L. Rich (Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator, 1995), the school that accepted Coleman was France's most famous flight school — École d’Aviation des Frères Caudron. It was managed by French aviators and plane designers Gaston and René Caudron.

Coleman spent the next seven months in training at this pilot's school, learning to fly in a French Nieuport Type 82. She was granted her license on June 15, 1921.

With her new credentials in hand, she returned to Paris and spent two months honing her skills under the tutelage of a French flying ace before returning to the United States in September 1921. Rich says that there is no record of her stay in the City of Light. However, she notes that Coleman:

... certainly shopped, for she brought home a stunning wardrobe including dresses, and tailored flying suit, and a leather coat.

Bessie Coleman (1922)
Public domain

Coleman quickly realized that she needed more training to earn her living as a stunt pilot in the U. S., so she returned to Europe in February 1922. She spent two months training in France before setting off for the Netherlands and Germany. In the Netherlands she met aircraft designer Anthony Fokker and in Germany she visited the Fokker Corporation, where she undertook additional training.

Bessie Coleman and a plane (1922)
Public domain

She then returned to the United States, where she pursued a career as an aerobatic flyer. She died in a flying accident in Jacksonville, Florida in 1926.

Coleman's feats have not gone unrecognized in France. French writer Jacques Béal wrote her biography, L'Ange Noir (The Black Angel) in 2008

L'ange noir book cover

and a novel devoted to her time in Picardy called Les Ailes Noires (Black Wings) in 2011.

Les ailes noires book cover

Two French cities have a street bearing Coleman’s name. One is Poitiers in central France. The other is Paris, which has recently given her name to a street in the 20th arrondissement.

Map indicating rue Bessie Coleman in the 20th arrondissement

Elizabeth "Bessie" Coleman was born in Atlanta, Texas in 1892.

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1 comment:

Patricia Laplante-Collins said...

Such a short, but courageous life!- Patricia Laplante-Collins