Willa Beatrice Brown, a peioneering aviator, was born on January 22, 1906 in Glasgow, KY. She was the first woman commissioned as a lieutenant in the Civil Air Patrol and she was the first Black woman to earn a commercial pilot’s licence, obtaining her licence in 1937. Her 
efforts were responsible for Congress’ forming the renowned Tuskegee Airmen squadron, leading to the integration of the U.S. military service in 1948.

Willa Beatrice Brown, c. 1941 – 1945, when she was in her thirties: 154. “Willa Beatrice Brown, a 31-year-old Negro American, serves her country by training pilots for the U.S. Army Air Forces. She is the first Negro woman to receive a commission as a lieutenant in the U.S. Civil Air Patrol.” N.d. 208-FS-793-1. (african_americans_wwii_154.jpg)


“Willa Beatrice Brown Chappell made significant contributions to both politics and the field of aviation during her lifetime. Her career began in 1926 as a “commerce” teacher at the Roosevelt High School, Gary, Indiana. She moved to Chicago after receiving tenure and there met Col. John C. Robinson and Cornelius R. Coffey, both pioneer pilots and mechanics. Under their tutelage Willa was able to follow in the steps of her mentor, Bessie Coleman, and later organize the annual memorial fly-over of Bessie Coleman’s grave.

In 1937 Willa earned her pilot’s license, making her the first African American woman to be licensed in the United States. Two years later she married Cornelius Coffey, who would become one of the Tuskegee Airmen. She was also a founding member of the National Airmen Association of America, the sole purpose of which was to lobby Congress for the racial integration of the U.S. Army Air Corps.

In 1941, with her flying service and aviation credentials, the U.S. government named Willa as the federal coordinator of the Chicago unit of the Civil Air Patrol civilian pilot training program. She was ranked an officer in this first integrated unit. Her efforts were directly responsible for the creation of the renowned Tuskegee Airmen, which led to the integration of the U.S. military services in 1948. She was instrumental in training more than 200 students who went on to become Tuskegee pilots.”


The documentary Willa Brown: An American Aviator, presented by the Filmmaker’s Library, chronicles the life story of Ms. Brown as well as the the history of Black American aviation before World War II, the contributions of many individuals who shaped civil rights history, and the film includes rare interviews of some of the actual participants in this little known part of American history.

In 1955, Ms. Brown married the Rev. J.H. Chappell. She became very active in the West Side Community Church in Chicago. In 1972 in recognition of her contributions to aviation in the United States as a pilot, an instructor, and an activist, Ms. Brown-Chappell was appointed to the Federal Aviation Administration’s Women’s Advisory Board.

Ms. Brown-Chappell died on July 18, 1992 at the age of 86.

In 2003, Willa Brown Chappell was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame for her native state of Kentucky.

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