In the early days of aviation, Bessie Coleman was a pioneer in so many ways.
Coleman became America’s first Black pilot after obtaining an international aviation license at age 29; she was also the first internationally licensed Black pilot.
She then embarked on a successful, but short-lived, career as a stunt pilot, developing advanced flying skills and performing for adoring crowds of all races. “Queen Bess,” as she came to be known, used her fame to encourage young Black students to pursue their dreams and to force promoters of her shows into desegregating its audiences. She had ambitions of one day starting a flight school for African Americans and of becoming a commercial pilot.
Her aerial stunts were risky and daring – and performed in rudimentary biplanes that often experienced mechanical mishaps. Coleman survived a serious crash in 1923 with just a few broken bones, and she was willing to potentially lose her life to serve as a role model for Black Americans and young women.
Unfortunately, she did just that at an airfield here in Jacksonville.
On April 30, 1926, Coleman departed on what was to be a brief test flight at Paxon Field piloted by mechanic William Wills. She’d spent the previous day or two participating in local speaking engagements, including a talk with local schoolchildren about exploring aviation, and was to perform in an air show at the city fairgrounds the next day.
Coleman and Wills’ plane was elevated at 3,000 feet when something caused its engine to stall; a wrench left near the engine was later deemed to be the culprit. The plane took a dive and flipped upside down, ejecting Coleman at around 2,000 feet.
Coleman was killed instantly, while Wills died in the subsequent crash. Thousands gathered at a local church to mourn the loss of “Queen Bess” at age 34, and thousands more nationwide were shaken by the loss of a role model.
The Flying Ace, a film produced by the locally-based Norman Studios and based loosely on Coleman’s life, was released later the same year.
The local airfield where Coleman took her fateful flight no longer exists, having closed down in the ‘40s. It’s now the site of Paxon School for Advanced Studies.
A small plaque at the entrance of the school memorializes Coleman, and in 2013, city council passed a resolution commemorating Coleman’s “legacy of pioneering aviation, self-confidence, and heroism.”