The Challenger Wins
Cornelius Coffey (1903-1994) - Photo Courtesy of Robbins History Museum
Cornelius Robinson Coffey possessed focus, resolve and reason. He was born in the segregated south in 1903 and lived most of his life in Chicago through the years of the Great Depression, WWII and the Civil Rights Movement. A high school dropout who had been mechanically inclined since grammar school, he later faced financial and cultural challenges. However, his remarkable skills as a mechanic became his means of support and grew into a lifetime of achievement through teaching and leadership.
Coffey was from Arkansas but his family moved to Omaha, Neb., when he was a teenager. His father, a widower with three children, worked for the railroad. Coffey went to work in 1919, supporting himself by repairing cars and motorcycles. He took automotive maintenance classes in Chicago. There he met John Robinson — the two became fast friends with similar interests and goals.
A Qualified Beginning
Sometime around 1925, Coffey got a job near Chicago as an auto mechanic for Emil Mack, a white automobile dealer who soon also hired Robinson. Friends of these young men remember that they built a Heath Parasol from a kit and taught themselves how to fly. When the Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) began requiring licensing of pilots and mechanics in 1926, hundreds of people with hands-on experience in aviation (like Coffey and Robinson) scrambled to qualify.
The two applied to Chicago’s Curtiss-Wright Aeronautical University, a school that offered 18-month courses toward licensing of aircraft mechanics and pilots. In addition to excellent instructors and facilities, the school had its own field where students could practice and eventually qualify to solo. Coffey and Robinson sent in their tuition fees and were accepted but were later turned away when they showed up for class. When Mack heard that they had been met with discrimination, he threatened Curtiss-Wright with a lawsuit and soon the boys were enrolled. They worked as auto mechanics during the day and attended classes at night.
In May of 1930, Coffey applied to the CAA for his student pilot’s permit, during which time he worked part time as a mechanic’s helper at Acker Airport outside Chicago. Both Coffey and Robinson graduated from Curtiss-Wright with high marks, and thereafter the school hired them to teach a night class to black students. At the same time, they were among the organizers of the Challenger Air Pilots Association (named after the Curtiss Challenger engine), a mostly-black flying club for both men and women.
In 1932, Coffey became the first black person in the U.S. to earn both a pilot’s license (#36609) and Aircraft and Engine (A&E) license (#11598). When Acker Airport closed that same year, Coffey, the Challengers, and a handful of white pilots built a flying field in the town of Robbins, outside of Chicago. For one year they had a home of their own until a wild storm destroyed their small facilities and damaged aircraft in 1933. Although short-lived, some historians consider Robbins field to be the first black-owned airport in the U.S. Coffey and his flying friends found a new place to land when Fred and Bill Schumacher built “Harlem Airport” on the south side of Chicago. The Schumachers welcomed Coffey and the Challengers to share their runways, but their flying school was open to whites only.
In 1936, Coffey received his commercial pilot’s license. Along with his application form was a note scrawled in pencil, “I want aviation to be my livelihood — flying and aircraft repair both.”
At Curtiss-Wright, Acker, Robbins and other local air fields, Coffey gained experience working on Kinner, Wright, Hisso, Lycoming, OX5 and Continental engines. He also gained proficiency with the structures of Waco, Hummingbird, Great Lakes and Taylor Cub aircraft. He was, by all accounts a remarkable mechanic, and he wanted to teach his skills to others. Either due to or in spite of his own experiences, Coffey knew from the start that his classes would be fully integrated.
Aviation and the Great Depression
During the 1930s, fair labor laws for working women and industrial laborers were initiated, but segregation could be found in varying levels in almost every state. In this slowly-evolving period of economic and social change, Coffey remained single-minded in his views. He did not consider partial integration the answer to school enrollments, employment or military service. It was all or nothing for Coffey. He attempted to prove integration was reasonable and practical at every opportunity.
Coffey built a small hangar at Harlem Airport at the opposite side from the Schumacher school and opened the Coffey School of Aeronautics in 1937. He became an administrator and his trade school prepared students for CAA-certified aviation careers. His generous, polite demeanor earned the eager support of his business associates and students who were expected to cooperate with one another at all times. He held true to his promise of open enrollment. Eager for training, black, white and female students quickly filled Coffey’s classrooms.
Perhaps the most important woman in Coffey’s life at that time was Willa Beatrice Brown, who had earned her aircraft mechanic’s license and graduated from the Curtiss-Wright Aeronautical School. She met Coffey and took flying lessons from him at Harlem Airport. They were soon living together in their small bungalow at the airport that was also a Civil Air Patrol office. Coffey and Brown administered the school as if the students were family. Student dropouts were rare.
While running the school, Brown and Coffey joined with groups seeking integration for nationally-funded aviation programs in 1939. They lobbied for inclusion of black colleges in the civilian pilot training program (CPTP) successfully and the Coffey School of Aeronautics became one of the few non-college schools franchised for CPTP.
A life’s work continues
Having received his certification as a Flight Instructor in 1938, Coffey gave hands-on classes at the Harlem Airport hangar on all levels, including radio navigation, Link trainer, engines and aircraft. Students began flying with a J3 Cub and later trained on more powerful Wacos. An estimated 1,500 men and women graduated from the Coffey School of Aeronautics by the time it closed in 1941. Some of the Coffey school graduates went on to join the 99th Pursuit Squadron, nicknamed the “Red Tails” but better known as the Tuskegee Airmen. It is generally accepted that Coffey’s and Brown’s efforts led to the 1948 presidental order to include blacks in the U.S. Air Force.
Coffey retained his certification as a ground instructor, training civilian aircraft mechanics and pilots during WWII. Harlem Airport expanded and remained active, later closing in 1956 after the Schumachers’ lease expired. Coffey continued to work as an aircraft mechanic and taught at Lewis School of Aeronautics in Lockport, Ill., for six years. He also started teaching aviation subjects at Chicago’s Dunbar Vocational High School in 1957. Although Coffey quit 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. His last application for renewal of his certification as an AI in 1993 was one year before his death at age 91.
Coffey received the Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award and a foundation was established in his name at American Airlines maintenance school in Chicago. Coffey was a true Challenger in many ways and won the respect of all who knew him.
Giacinta Bradley Koontz is an aviation historian, magazine columnist and author. In 2008, she was awarded the National DAR History Medal and has appeared in documentaries on PBS and The History Channel. Learn more about her aviation history projects at www.harrietquimby.org.