Skip Navigation


Willa Brown Chappell (1906-1992)

Willa Brown Chappell Willa Beatrice Brown was born on January 22, 1906 in Glasgow, KY. A pioneering aviator, she earned her pilot’s license in 1937, making her the first African-American woman to be licensed to fly in the United States. In 1939, she received a commercial pilot’s license. She was the first black woman to make a career of aviation and, according to biographer Betty K. Gumbert, was the person most responsible for preparing black pilots for World War II.

Inspired by aviatrix Bessie Coleman, Willa started taking flying lessons in 1934 at Chicago’s Aeronautical University. Soon she became a member of the Challenger Air Pilot’s Association and the Chicago Girls Flight Club and purchased her own airplane. The same year she received her pilot’s license, she also earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University.

Willa Brown co-founded the National Airmen’s Association of America, an organization whose mission was to get African Americans into the United States Air Force, in 1937. Three years later, she and Lieutenant Cornelius R. Coffey started the Coffey School of Aeronautics, where approximately 200 pilots were trained in the next seven years. Some of those pilots later became part of the 99th Pursuit Squadron at Tuskegee Institute—also known as the legendary “Tuskegee Airmen.” Willa’s efforts were directly responsible for the squadron’s creation, which led to the integration of the military in 1948.

In 1941, she became the first African-American officer in the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), and the U.S. government named her federal coordinator of the CAP Chicago unit. By adding her mechanic’s license in 1943, Willa became the first woman in the United States to have both a mechanic’s license and a commercial pilot’s license.

Brown also lobbied Washington for the inclusion of African Americans in the Civilian Pilot Training Program and the Army Air Corps. In 1942, she became a training coordinator for the Civil Aeronautics Administration and a teacher in the Civilian Pilot Training Program.

In 1955, Brown married Rev. J.H. Chappell and became very active in the West Side Community Church in Chicago. She was appointed to the Federal Aviation Administration Women’s Advisory Board in 1972 in recognition of her contributions to aviation in the United States as a pilot, an instructor, and an activist. She died on July 18, 1992 at the age of 86.

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

Aviation Home | Museum Trip Video | The Museum | Credits | Field Trips Home