She was doing her master’s degree program at Northwestern University when she joined the Challenger Air Pilots Association and learned to fly at Harlem Field, on the southwest side of Chicago. She started directing flights and providing group school instruction in the field after she gained her Master Mechanic Certificate in 1935.
Willa Brown became the first African-American woman to hold both a pilot’s license in 1938 and a commercial license in 1939, according to National Air and Space Museum. She was also the first African-American woman to ascend to the position of an officer in the Illinois Civil Air Patrol.
She provided an opportunity for Black pilots to exhibit their talent to the world through an air show she engineered. The Chicago Defender office recalled how a young Brown in 1936 walked into their premises in an aviator’s uniform of white jodhpurs, jacket and books and pitched an advertisement for an African-American air show to be organized at Harlem Field.
The show was attended by 200 and 300 spectators and offered Black pilots in Chicago a chance to demonstrate their flying skills. The editor of the Chicago Defender paper, Enoch Waters, who covered the event that day, said he would never forget a flight with Brown in a Piper Cub.
As a strong campaigner for African-American pilots, Brown became the co-founder of the National Airmen’s Association of America that comprised a group of Black aviators in 1939.
Brown suffered racial discrimination during World War II when she wanted to join the Women Airforce Service Pilots. Her request was rejected because of the color of her skin. She however offered her assistance in other ways during the war. Brown, with her husband, Cornelius Coffey, organized the Civil Air Patrol Squadron 613 in partnership with their school, Coffey School of Aeronautics.
She rose to top ranks such as lieutenant and adjutant in the school. The Civil Air Patrol was providing protection to the home front, rescuing pilots from the war front, flying anti-submarine machines, border patrols and courier services.
When the Civilian Pilots Training Program was instituted, the Civil Aeronautics Administration selected the Coffey School to train thousands of pilots throughout the United States. Brown was the director of the School at the time.
The mark of success left in the aviation industry by the Coffey School led to the acceptance of African Americans into the Army Air Forces which wasn’t the case in the past. By 1941, hundreds of men and women had trained under Brown, including over 200 future Tuskegee Airmen and instructors.
In 1946, Brown became the first African-American woman to run for Congress aside from the feat she achieved in the aviation industry.
Her work in the aviation space and her advocacy brought attention to African-American pilots and paved access for them to join the U.S. military and carve their place in history.