She was a master’s student at Northwestern University when she joined the Challenger Air Pilots Association and learned to fly at Harlem Field on Chicago’s southwest side. After earning her Master Mechanic Certificate in 1935, she began directing flights and providing group school instruction in the field.
According to the National Air and Space Museum, Willa Brown was the first African-American woman to hold both a pilot’s license and a commercial license. She was also the first African-American woman to be appointed to the Illinois Civil Air Patrol as an officer.
Through an air show she organized, she gave Black pilots a chance to show off their skills to the rest of the world. In 1936, a young Brown walked into the Chicago Defender office wearing an aviator’s uniform of white jodhpurs, jacket, and books and pitched an advertisement for an African-American air show to be held at Harlem Field.
The show drew between 200 and 300 spectators and provided an opportunity for Black pilots in Chicago to demonstrate their flying abilities. Enoch Waters, the editor of the Chicago Defender who covered the event that day, said he would never forget a flight with Brown in a Piper Cub.
Brown, a strong advocate for African-American pilots, co-founded the National Airmen’s Association of America, a group of Black aviators, in 1939.
Brown faced racial discrimination when she attempted to join the Women Airforce Service Pilots during WWII. Her request was denied due to the color of her skin. During the war, she did, however, offer her assistance in other ways. Brown founded the Civil Air Patrol Squadron 613 with her husband, Cornelius Coffey, in collaboration with their school, the Coffey School of Aeronautics.
She rose through the ranks of the school to positions such as lieutenant and adjutant. The Civil Air Patrol protected the home front by rescuing pilots from the front lines, flying anti-submarine machines, border patrols, and courier services.
The Civil Aeronautics Administration chose the Coffey School to train thousands of pilots across the United States when the Civilian Pilots Training Program was established. Brown was the School’s director at the time.
The Coffey School’s legacy of success in the aviation industry resulted in the acceptance of African Americans into the Army Air Forces, which was not previously the case. By 1941, Brown had trained hundreds of men and women, including over 200 future Tuskegee Airmen and instructors.
Aside from her accomplishments in the aviation industry, Brown was the first African-American woman to run for Congress in 1946.
Her work in aviation and advocacy brought attention to African-American pilots and paved the way for them to join the United States military and make history.