Cornelius Coffey achieved a number of firsts, one being the first Black person to establish an aeronautical school in the United States. The Arkansas native was born September 6, 1903.
Coffey was born in the town of Newport. After taking a flight at the age of 13, his interest in becoming a pilot grew over time. Coffey moved to Chicago in 1925 to study auto mechanics, befriending John C. Robinson and supporting each other’s dreams of becoming Black pilots. After being barred from attending aviation school due to their race, Coffey and Robinson built their own single-engine plane and taught themselves how to fly.
In 1932, Coffey became the first Black certified aircraft mechanic after suing to gain entry to an aeronautics school. Later that year, he became the first Black person to hold both a pilot and mechanic’s license. In 1938, Coffey began the first Black-owned and certified flight school in the states, the Coffey School of Aeronautics. Prior to World War II, the school, located at the Harlem Airport, was a primary training ground for Black pilots, including serving as a training hub for the Tuskegee Airmen.
Willa Brown, Coffey’s wife, worked with him at his school and is the first Black woman to earn a pilot’s license and the first Black women to run for U.S. Congress among other feats. Coffey became the first Black person to have an aeronautical intersection named after him. The “Coffey Fix” is located near Midway Airport.
Coffey was active in aviation even at the age of 90. He passed in 1994 at the age of 92.