SMO — Before the Tuskegee Airmen or Amelia Earhart’s head-turning escapades, there was Bessie Coleman.
“The air is the only place free from prejudices,” Coleman once said, and very few would know it as well as she.
Santa Monica Airport officials honored Coleman, the first African-American female to get pilot’s license, for National Women in Aviation Month, celebrated each March to recognize the female pioneers of flight as well as those who participate in the field today.
The airport team has been rotating through important women in aviation on their Facebook page, but chose Coleman for her unique contributions to aviation and connection to Santa Monica, where she flew — and crashed — planes in the 1920s.
Not that she could get off the ground here in the United States, at least not initially, said Dorothy Cochrane, curator of general aviation for the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
“She was an early female pilot and an early African-American pilot. Being that, she had two strikes against her. It was hard for her to get into aviation, let alone maker her way in it,” Cochrane said.
Coleman had to go to France to earn her license. She trained at the Ecole d’Aviation des Freres Caudron at Le Crotoy in Somme, the same school that military pilots attended in the day.
Coleman received her license on June 15, 1921, according to the Smithsonian’s website. She made a living flying, and participated in races that began in Santa Monica. Her ultimate goal was to establish a flying school that catered to African Americans.
Santa Monica was also the site of one of Coleman’s most destructive accidents. AvStop.com, an online aviation magazine, reported that Coleman crashed her Curtiss JN-4N after the plane stalled 300 feet into her climb from Santa Monica.
She was severely injured, and spent months recuperating from the crash.
Coleman died on April 30, 1926 while flying in a May Day celebration in Jacksonville, Fla.
Ten minutes into the flight, the plane — piloted by her publicity agent and mechanic, William Will — went into a nose dive and flipped. Coleman did not have a seat belt on, and was tossed from the plane.
Although her career was short-lived, Coleman stands out in aviation history not only for demolishing expectations attached to gender and race, but for having the ambition to begin with.
To a large degree, flying is still a man’s world.
The Federal Aviation Administration reported 26,633 women holding pilot airmen certificates, not including students. That makes up roughly 5 percent of the 498,471 people in the United States in 2011 that had the same certification.
It’s a difficult hobby to pick up, largely because of the cost of training, and it wasn’t until the 1970s in theory and the 1990s in practice that women could take advantage of career paths to become commercial airline pilots and fighter pilots, Cochrane said.
Susan Larson, a member of the Ninety-Nines, Inc., an international association of female pilots, believes that it goes even further.
The Ninety-Nines is an organization founded by 99 women pilots in 1929 for the support and advancement of aviation. The first president of the Ninety-Nines was Earhart, possibly the most famous female pilot, and one who also flew out of SMO.
While women today do not face the same kinds of barriers that Earhart or Coleman had to overcome in terms of either gender or race, there’s a perception that aviation isn’t for women, Larson said.
“I don’t think women are encouraged to look at aviation as an opportunity for a career. They don’t know that women fly aircraft,” she said. “They look at me and go, ‘You’re a pilot? Really?’”
The Ninety-Nines and its member chapters do their best to rectify that situation.
The San Fernando Valley Ninety-Nines covers Santa Monica. The group does a number of community programs, including a Girl Scout aviation badge day and science fair.
The group also supports the “Traveling Space Museum,” which goes into schools to talk about aerospace, and participates in career days both at the airport and in schools.
Larson operates mainly out of Arizona, and took part in a day to introduce high school-aged women and older to flight.
“It’s amazing to watch their joy and delight,” she said.
America will need more pilots, and they may as well be women, in Larson’s point of view. It’s just a matter of letting them know what’s out there.
“You just have to keep opening doors for people and see if they’ll walk through them,” Larson said.