Did you know: Notable Aviators

Benjamin O. Davis Jr.

Bessie Coleman — Coleman broke through the headwinds of racial prejudice as a barnstorming pilot at air shows in the 1920s. As a pilot, Coleman quickly established a benchmark for her race and gender in the 1920s. She toured the country as a barnstormer, performing aerobatics at air shows.

Her flying career, however, proved to be short-lived. She died in a plane crash in 1926, her untimely death coming just a year before Charles Lindbergh made his historic transatlantic flight in the Spirit of St. Louis.

Noel F. Parrish — A career Army Air Corps pilot, Noel F. Parrish took a keen interest in promoting African-American involvement in military aviation. In the late 1930s, he befriended Cornelius Coffey and admired the flying program of his Challengers Air Pilots’ Association in Chicago.

Parrish took command of Tuskegee Army Air Field in 1941 and oversaw the training of airmen for Black fighter and bomber squadrons. He held that post throughout World War II. Parrish did much to make the Tuskegee program a success. He provided enlightened leadership and promoted high morale among the cadets at a time when the armed forces remained segregated. As base commander, Parrish made sure the program was fair and evenhanded, which enhanced morale among the cadets.

Benjamin Oliver Davis Jr. — An American United States Air Force general and commander of the World War II Tuskegee Airmen. He was the first African-American general officer in the United States Air Force. On December 9, 1998, he was advanced to four-star general by President Bill Clinton. During World War II, Davis was commander of the 99th and the 332nd fighter groups, which escorted bombers on air combat missions over Europe. Davis himself flew sixty missions in P-39, Curtiss P-40, P-47 and P-51 Mustang fighters. Davis followed in his father’s footsteps in breaking racial barriers, as Benjamin O. Davis Sr. was the first African-American general in the United States Army.

Cornelius Coffey — The “Golden Age of Flight” in the 1920s and 1930s gave rise to many aerial spectaculars, such as long-distance flights across continents and oceans. During the Great Depression, Chicago rivaled Los Angeles as a center for African-American aviation with a highly successful flying club for African Americans, led by Coffey.

A skilled auto mechanic, Cornelius Coffey dreamed of becoming a pilot. In 1931 he brought together a group of Black air enthusiasts to study at the Curtiss-Wright Aeronautical School. Then he helped organize the Challengers Air Pilots’ Association to expand flying opportunities for African Americans in Chicago. Excluded from local airfields, they set up their own at Robbins, Ill.

In Chicago, Coffey helped establish training classes, and his School of Aeronautics received a franchise from the Civilian Pilot Training Program. Coffey and his fellow air enthusiasts promoted the flight of Chauncey Spencer and Dale White, who flew from Chicago to Washington, D.C., in 1939 to campaign for an end to racial segregation in aviation.

Contact staff writer Chanel Hill

at (215) 893-5716 or at chill@phillytrib.com.

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