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Aviation and Space Safety Pioneers in Black History

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Lauren Douglas

Opportunities in the sciences of aviation and space were not always available to all people. A small few fought to be included and thus changed history. Black History Month exists because of pioneers similar to these who stood up to excel and achieve for those who were underrepresented in many industries. Black History Month is a time we hear more about those innovators who were excluded but we appreciate their contributions all year long. They persevered and changed the course for future generations. This year, we would like to recognize a few of these trailblazers for their outstanding work and commitment to aviation and space, and ultimately Department of the Air Force Safety.

Lucean Arthur Headen (August 26, 1879 – September 17, 1957) was one of the earliest known African American aviators and a prolific inventor. Headen invented a cloaking device for ships that chased U-boats during World War I. His interest in automobiles motivated him to produce the Headen Pace Setter, a car with double the horsepower of the Model T, its more popular contemporary. Additionally, Headen’s patents for de-icing aircraft wings and propellers are still cited by aeronautical corporations such as Boeing and Mitsubishi Aircraft today. Deicing aircraft is essential to aviation safety because ice forming during flight is common and disrupts smooth airflow to fly safely. It was once difficult to find information about Headen’s life and career, but in recent years he has been acknowledged by publications, and even had a biography written about his life, Lucean Arthur Headen: The Making of a Black Inventor and Entrepreneur by Jill D Snider. 

Lt. Willa Brown (January 22, 1906 – July 18, 1992) was the first African American woman to earn a pilot’s license and first African American woman officer in the Illinois Civil Air Patrol in the United States. Brown not only fought for her own place in aviation, but she also worked to educate many others. She married Cornelius Coffey, the first African American to hold a pilot’s and aircraft mechanic’s license, a skilled aviator in his own right. Together they operated Coffey’s flight school, training hundreds of pilots in the process. Proper training standards and knowledgeable instruction is a crucial part of aviation safety. In 1939, she earned her commercial pilot’s license. Together with Coffey and Enoch P. Waters, Brown helped form the National Airmen's Association of America the same year. The organization’s main goal was to get Black aviation cadets into the United States military, and as the organization's national secretary and the president of the Chicago branch, Brown became an activist for racial equality. She remained politically and socially active in Chicago long after the Coffey School closed in 1945. 

Katherine Johnson (née Coleman; August 26, 1918 – February 24, 2020) was chosen to be one of three African American students to attend graduate school when West Virginia quietly decided to integrate its graduate schools in 1939. Johnson provided her math expertise for the 1958 document Notes on Space Technology, a collection featuring a series of lectures given by engineers in the Flight Research Division and the Pilotless Aircraft Research Division (PARD). Her work as a genius mathematician and NASA employee was highlighted in the 2016 movie Hidden Figures. Johnson’s calculations of astrodynamics and orbital mechanics were critical to the success of the first and subsequent U.S.-crewed spaceflights. Her computations greatly impacted the safety of Space operations. Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015. 

Maj. Robert Lawrence (October 2, 1935 – December 8, 1967) was a U.S. Air Force officer and became the first African American astronaut in 1967. The USAF selected Lawrence as a member of the third group of aerospace research pilots for the Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL) Program on June 30, 1967. The MOL was a joint project of the Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office to obtain high-resolution photographic imagery of adversaries during the American Cold War. The MOL Program’s mini-space stations of modified Gemini capsules orbited low polar Earth and were occupied by 2-man crews for 30 days at a time.

After being selected as the first African American astronaut by any national space program, Lawrence said with his typical modesty, “This is nothing dramatic. It’s just a normal progression. I’ve been very fortunate.” Lawrence was killed at age 32 in a plane crash at Edwards AFB on December 8, 1967. He was flying in an F-104 as the rear instructor with a flight test trainee during a steep-descent glide technique.

These individual contributions to aviation and space safety magnify the need for inclusion. American history would be very different without these pioneers. Their determination to pursue and achieve, contrary to what was socially acceptable at the time, set the stage for future excellence for those previously excluded. Carrying out the safest operations in air and space is possible thanks to innovators, inventors, mathematicians, engineers, analysts and more, just like these and we thank you!