Soaring over barriers

Bessie Coleman, c. 1922. Photo: Wikipedia

There’s nothing like biting off more than you can chew, and then chewing anyway.

–Mark Burnett

Sometimes as you strive to reach goals in life you find encouragement in a chorus of cheers and good will. Yet, someone, somewhere in the rafters, sings the haunting lyrics — “maybe you’ve bitten off more than you can chew.”

I can only imagine how many times aviator Bessie Coleman heard that. She’s a perfect illustration for Mark Burnett’s quote. The 10th of 13 children born in 1892 to Texas sharecroppers, Coleman dreamed of becoming a pilot during a time in the United States when, regardless of color, women were not afforded that opportunity.

As a young woman working in Chicago she listened to the stories of returning WWI pilots. The exploits of women aviators in Europe captivated her.

Unable to obtain training in the United States, Coleman studied French at a Berlitz school in Chicago gathered her savings and in 1920 moved to Paris.

Doris Rich wrote in the Coleman biography, Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator, “From the moment Bessie decided to become a pilot nothing deterred her. The respect and attention she longed for, her need to ‘amount to something,’ were directed at last toward a definite goal.”

Bessie Coleman in France. Photo: Wikipedia Commons.

In 1921, she became the first woman of African-American descent to earn not only an aviation pilot’s license but an international aviation license as well.

To earn a living as a civilian pilot Coleman became a barnstormer. To perfect her skill she returned briefly to Europe to study with aviation experts in the Netherlands and Germany. Returning to the United States, she became well-known not only for her daring but her skill as well. Her show of figure eights, loops and other maneuvers drew enthusiastic crowds across the country.

Coleman nurtured another goal; to establish an aviation school. She died before realizing it. In April 1926, in Florida, she planned a stunt that would culminate in a parachute jump. She went out in her recently purchased plane with mechanic and publicity agent William Willis in the seat next to her. The plane went into a dive. Unable to pull out of it, the plane went into a spin. Seat belt unbuckled, she fell out of her plane, plummeting 2,000 feet (610m) or more to her death at age 34. The plane crashed and burned killing Willis.

Coleman may not have established a brick-and-mortar school but in making aviation history she influenced generations.

I will keep chewing, firm in the faith I will soar.

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