Willa Beatrice Brown was born on January 22, 1906 in Glasgow, KY. A pioneering aviator, she earned her pilots 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 pilots 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 Chicagos Aeronautical University. Soon she became a member of the Challenger Air Pilots Association and the Chicago Girls Flight Club and purchased her own airplane. The same year she received her pilots license, she also earned a masters degree from Northwestern University.
Willa Brown co-founded the National Airmens 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 Institutealso known as the legendary Tuskegee Airmen. Willas efforts were directly responsible for the squadrons 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 mechanics license in 1943, Willa became the first woman in the United States to have both a mechanics license and a commercial pilots 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 Womens 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.