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Consider the Perspicacity of Cornelius Coffey

By Rhonda Sherrod, J.D., Ph.D.

When my parents moved into their first apartment in Chicago, the landlord who lived in the flat below treated them with the upmost kindness and care. My parents became very fond of Cornelius Coffey and his wife, Anna, and two years later they made the Coffeys the godparents of their newborn daughter.

The Coffeys lavished me with unconditional love and gifts galore – nothing was out of reach for “the godchild.” And, because he was so generous and unassuming, my parents were astonished when they discovered that Cornelius Coffey was a world-class aviator.

Born in Arkansas in 1903, Coffey was fascinated with cars and mechanics as a kid. He had a brilliant, analytical mind that grasped every intricate detain of how car engines and parts work. One day, at a barnstorming aerial show, he persuaded a white pilot to let him look at a plane’s engine. He said he observed that it was not that different from the car engines whose operations he had already mastered.

Coffey began building and flying planes and earned a private pilot’s license in 1928. Later, he was accepted into an aircraft mechanic’s training program in Chicago. However, when he and his friend, John Robinson (who was to become a famous pilot for Haile Selassie’s Ethiopian military), arrived to take the courses, they were refused entrance because they were “Negroes.” But the white man who employed them as car mechanics threatened to sue, so the owner of the school admitted them. My godfather and Robinson understood that, rather than litigate the case, the plan was to fail them. But he and Robinson confounded the plan by making the highest grades and graduating at the top of their class.

Coffey went on to become the first African American to be licensed as a commercial pilot and a master aircraft mechanic. Then, in 1938, he and his first wife, Willa Brown, another pioneering black aviator, founded the Coffey School of Aeronautics, which became the only school not affiliated with a college or university to be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration. And that was just the beginning.

Coffey and Brown were founding members of the National Airmen’s Association of America, and the association helped convince the federal government to contract with the Coffey School, and other black institutions, to educate and train black pilots. The couple then trained aviators who became instructors for, and actual members of, the famed Tuskegee Airmen. During World War II, those talented men stunned the world with their disciplined and extraordinary flying skills, their expert judgment and their mastery of all things aeronautical.

My godfather’s contribution to the fight for justice and equality cannot be overstated. He trained black men who patriotically went into battle overseas while, simultaneously, fighting racism from their own country and breaking down virulent racist ideology in the process.

In addition to training airmen, Coffey was a prolific inventor. Among other things, he invented the carburetor apparatus that de-ices planes so they can fly in frigid temperatures – a version of which is still used in the airline industry today. And his brilliance never failed him – he was still flying his airplane and examining engines for the Federal Aviation Administration as an octogenarian!

I am ever grateful that my godfather was able to receive his plaudits before he died in 1994. He is honored in the Smithsonian, the Illinois Aviation Hall of Fame and the National Air and Space Museum. And since he trained many of the first African Americans who became aircraft mechanics for commercial airlines, an educational foundation at the American Airlines Maintenance Academy bears his name.

A master educator and aviator, Cornelius Coffey is still guiding people who want to fly. The next time you descend into Chicago’s busy Midway Airport, the air traffic controllers just might direct your pilots to fly through the Coffey Aerial Navigational Fix (or route) named after my godfather. Coffey was the first African American so honored, and I am honored to have been his goddaughter.

Note:  This article (with small insubstantial changes) first appeared in the Huntsville Times on March 16, 2008 under the title “Godparents who helped steer a nation’s aviation history.”