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Willa Brown 1937 was a big year for Willa Brown (1906-1992). She became the first African American woman to receive a commercial pilot's license. She also co-founded the National Airmen's Association of America, which worked to get black pilots into the segregated military. Later, with her husband William Coffey, Brown founded the Coffey School of Aeronautics to train African American pilots for World War II. Brown also served in the Civil Aeronautics Administration, Civilian Pilot Training Program, and Civil Air Patrol.

Jacqueline Cochran At one time, fast-flying Jacqueline Cochran (1910?-1980) held more aviation records than any other flier, male or female. She won the Bendix Transcontinental Air Race in 1935 and led the Women's Air Force Service Pilots (WASP) during World War II. In 1964, she set a women's speed record of 1,429 miles per hour. She also flew higher than any other woman (55,300 feet), and was the first woman to fly a bomber and a jet across the Atlantic. After her retirement from the Air Force Reserve, she served as a special consultant to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

Bessie Coleman Bessie Coleman (1893-1926) wouldn't let discrimination get in the way of her flying career. Early American flight schools wouldn't admit blacks. So Coleman enrolled in a French aviation school, and became the first African American to earn a pilot's license. Returning to the United States, she discovered that no airline would hire an African American (or a woman) as a commercial pilot. That's when Coleman took up stunt flying, or barnstorming. She became a popular barnstormer at air shows, as well as an advocate for black fliers. Coleman died in a plane crash while rehearsing for a show.

Glenn Curtiss He started out building engines for bicycles, but Glenn Curtiss (1878-1930) gained fame as the creator of a number of important airplanes. An accomplished flyer himself, Curtiss won the Scientific American trophy for flying one kilometer on July 4, 1908. He built the first seaplane in the U.S., and his best-known plane, the JN-4 ("Jenny") was widely used in World War I. After the war, the Jenny became popular among barnstormers and was used to carry mail over the Canadian Rockies. Another of Curtiss's planes, the NC-4, was the first plane to cross the Atlantic, in 1919.

Benjamin Oliver Davis, Jr. Benjamin Oliver Davis, Jr., (born 1912) took a sledgehammer to the walls of segregation in the military. In 1954, he became the first black general in Air Force history, but perhaps his greatest achievement was organizing and commanding the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-American military flying unit. The Tuskegee Airmen fought heroically in Europe during World War II, flying thousands of missions, destroying 261 enemy aircraft, and winning 850 medals. After World War II ended, Davis helped plan the desegregation of the Air Force.

Amelia Earhart Amelia Earhart (1897- disappeared 1937) lived a life of firsts. Her streak began in 1928, when, as a passenger, she became the first woman to fly across the Atlantic. In 1932, she became the first woman pilot to cross the Atlantic alone, doing so in a record-setting 13.5 hours. Three years later, she completed the first solo flight from Hawaii to California. In 1937, Earhart and navigator Fred Noonan climbed aboard a Lockheed Electra and began an attempt at the first flight around the world. With two-thirds of the journey behind them, the pair mysteriously disappeared over the Pacific Ocean.

Daniel Chappie James After Daniel "Chappie" James (1920-1978) flew in World War II with the Tuskegee Airmen, his career skyrocketed. He fought in the Korean and Vietnam wars, commanded an Air Force base in Libya, and rose to the rank of four-star general. At the pinnacle of his career, James served as Commander in Chief of the North American Air Defense. He was widely respected for helping end the segregation of military personnel at facilities such as officers' clubs.

Samuel Pierpont Langley In the race for flight, Samuel Pierpont Langley (1834-1906) challenged the Wright brothers. An astronomer, Langley served as Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. He built the first heavier-than-air unmanned flying machine to achieve sustained (though uncontrolled) flight. On December 8, 1903, Langley attempted to launch his gasoline-powered "Great Aerodrome," off a houseboat in the Potomac River. Unfortunately, the Great Aerodrome crashed into the river and was destroyed. Just nine days later, Orville and Wilbur Wright made history.

Harriet Quimby Her aviation career lasted only 11 months, but Harriet Quimby (1875-1912) certainly made a name for herself, as a pilot, a photographer, a journalist, and a trend-setter. A true thrill-seeker, Quimby was the first licensed female pilot in America. She was also the first woman--and only the third pilot--to fly across the English Channel, a distance of 22 miles. Quimby died when she and a passenger were flung from her Bleriot monoplane before a crowd of hundreds of spectators.

Edward Rickenbacker Called America's "Ace of Aces" during World War I, Edward Rickenbacker (1890-1973) used the glare of the sun to conceal himself from enemy planes. Before World War I, Rickenbacker gained fame as an automobile race driver. When war came, he served as a pilot under Billy Mitchell, shooting down 26 enemy planes, and winning the Congressional Medal of Honor. After the war, Rickenbacker worked in the automobile industry before turning to a career in commercial aviation. He led Eastern Air Lines for nearly thirty years before stepping down from the company in 1963.


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