A small group of young aviators at Dunbar HS is learning how to become aircraft mechanics and licensed pilots. Chicago has a rich history of aviation that is often unknown.
During the 1920s, most African Americans migrated to the North in search of better opportunities. Some people associated the black community in Chicago with the sounds of jazz and the blues. Very few individuals knew that Chicago was a hub for ambitious young men and women interested in aviation. Flying planes was a novelty around most of the country. The training young blacks received in Chicago allowed them to fly as pilots during World War II.
Cornelius Coffey and John C. Roberson worked as auto mechanics in Detroit when the buzz started about Bessie Coleman breaking down barriers to become a licensed pilot. This news piqued their interest, and they decided to apply to an Aeronautics school in Chicago. Both were accepted until the school realized they were black. Since he was not allowed to be a student in the aviation program, Roberson entered the school as a maintenance worker. Roberson worked his way up. Once he and Coffey graduated, they became the 1st black aviation instructors in the United States. Hired to teach black students at night, they ran into a roadblock when they found out they could not fly out of airports used by whites. Roberson and Coffey solved this problem by building an airfield in Robbins, IL. This airfield for aspiring black aviators to learn and practice their skills. This was the 1st black built, owned, and operated airport in the country.
According to wttw.com, Willa Brown arrived in Chicago in 1932 and developed a love for flying after meeting Johnny Robinson. Her determination led her to become the 1st black woman to attain a commercial pilot’s license. Ms. Brown later became the face of black aviation, especially in Chicago. She used her charisma and publicity skills to develop a relationship with the Chicago Defender. Willa Brown and the Defender brought awareness to black aviators in Chicago and across the United States. Together Cornelius Coffey, John C. Roberson, and Willa Brown made aviation history in Chicago by training others to fly.
Cornelius Coffey is one of the most influential people in the world of aviation. In the 1950s, Cornelius Coffey started a program to encourage students to become licensed aircraft mechanics and later began introducing aviation. This was a widely successful program at Dunbar and other high schools across Chicago until the 1990s.
Revitalized in February 2020 by Umberto Ricco, he began teaching the history of aviation. With his mobile aviation museum, Mr. Ricco displayed his passion for teaching the history of black aviators. Umberto Ricco travels the country educating people about the little-known connection between aviation and black pilots in Chicago. His mobile museum led him to Dunbar High School, where Mr. Coffey’s program began. Umberto Ricco donates his time, knowledge, tools, and vintage airplane collection to educate a new generation of aviation students.
The aviation after school program at Dunbar High School does not have any prerequisites but requires a considerable time commitment. The students commit to 3 hours every day after school and during the summer breaks to receive the necessary instruction to test for a pilot’s license. The program includes classroom instruction, working on an airplane, and taking a solo flight. Mr. Ricco’s goal is to increase awareness of aviation’s prestigious field and make it financially accessible to all.
When Zaire Horton entered high school as a Freshmen, he had hopes of joining the basketball team. When learning about the aviation program at Dunbar, he was intrigued. He never thought about flying a plane before. Zaire says, “to be successful in this program; you must have focus and patience”. He knows his aircraft mechanic and aviation skills will pay off in the long run. “Flying a plane is no joke; there are risks associated.” This program requires you to keep up with the instruction, keep your skills fresh, and always prepare for the unexpected. You learn to read the instrument panel of the plane, along with critical decision-making skills. It requires a firm commitment to stick with the program.
In September of 2020, Zaire took his 1st solo flight at the age of 15 years old. He could not describe the feeling in words! He said he felt everything from amazed to excited. The more he learns about aviation, the more motivated he is to stick with the program. He plans to study and attain a glider pilot license at 16. After that, he plans to earn his commercial pilot license and fly private planes around the world. Zaire says this program exposed him to new opportunities in a short time frame. Zaire has shadowed an Illinois senator. During that visit, he went to the Governor’s mansion and met other interesting people. Zaire hopes to tell more people about his experience and inspire more people to enroll in the program.
Theresa Horton is a freelance writer living in Chicago. Follow her on her social media @passionateresources.