Cornelius Coffey pioneered aviation
*Cornelius Coffey was born on this date in 1903. He was an African American aviator and engineer.
Cornelius Robinson Coffey was born in Newport, Arkansas just months before the Wright brothers' initial flight. His family moved to Omaha, Neb., when he was a teenager. His father a widower with three children, worked for the railroad. Coffey became “hooked” on aviation after he took his first airplane ride when he was 13. He went to Chicago to work in 1919, supporting himself by repairing cars and motorcycles. In 1925 he enrolled in a trade school on the South Side of Chicago to study automobile mechanics. John Robinson a friend of Coffey shared a similar desire to fly.
Commercial flying schools would not accept them because of their race, but a black businessman lent the two a vacant storefront where they built a one-seat airplane powered by a motorcycle engine. They then taught themselves to fly. Emil Mack employed the two as auto mechanics. He was a white man who owned a Chevrolet dealership in Elmwood Park, Illinois, when they applied and were accepted at the Curtiss Wright School of Aviation in Chicago for an aviation mechanics-training course. Upon reporting to the school for the start of classes, Coffey and Robinson were refused admittance when it was discovered they were black. The school attempted to reimburse the two for their tuition, but Mr. Mack, threatened to sue the school if they were not allowed to enter. The school backed down and allowed Coffey and Robinson to attend. Two years later they graduated at the top of their class.
Cornelius Coffey was the first black person to hold both a pilot's and mechanic's license in America. He obtained his commercial license on August 15,1938 (#36609) In the late 1930s, Coffey established the Coffey School of Aeronautics at Harlem Airport, located south of Chicago at 87th Street and Harlem Avenue. From 1938 to 1945 more than 1,500 black students went through the school, including many who would later become Tuskegee Airmen. After World War II, Coffey served as an instructor at the Lewis School of Aeronautics in Lockport, and then at Dunbar Vocational High School in Chicago, training some of the first blacks to be hired as mechanics by commercial airlines.
Although Coffey left teaching in 1969, he was by no means retired. His experience and skills kept him employed in Illinois as an A&P and aircraft inspector (AI) for decades. Coffey received the Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award and a foundation was established in his name at American Airlines maintenance school in Chicago. His last application for renewal of his certification as an AI in 1993 was one year before his death at age 91. He died in Chicago on 2 March 1994. Coffey was a recipient of the "Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award" from the Federal Aviation Administration and was the first black American to have an aerial navigation intersection named after them by the FAA (the "Coffey Fix," a waypoint located on the VICTOR 7 airway over Lake Calumet, provides electronic course guidance to Chicago Midway Airport Runway 31 Left). Coffey also designed a carburetor heater that prevented icing and allowed airplanes to fly in all kinds of weather. Devices similar to his are still in use on aircraft today.
Coffey was also the first black person to establish an aeronautical school in the United States. His school was also the only non-university affiliated aviation school to become part of the Civilian Pilot Training Program. His pioneering efforts led to the integration of black pilots into the American aviation industry. The Cornelius R. Coffey Aviation Education Foundation was established at the American Airlines Maintenance Academy in Chicago to help train a younger generation of high school and college students interested in aviation. It is a fitting legacy to this intrepid American aviator.
Chanute Air Museum,
1011 Pacesetter Drive,
Rantoul, Illinois 61866-3672
Giacinta Bradley Koontz
aviation historian, magazine columnist and author
Today in American History