Inspired by aviatrix Bessie Coleman, who was the first black American woman to earn an International license to fly then return to the United States, Willa started taking flying lessons in 1934 at Chicago's Aeronautical University. Soon she became a member of the Challenger Air Pilot's Association and the Chicago Girls Flight Club and purchased her own airplane.
In 1937, Brown earned a master's degree in business administration from Northwestern University.
In 1938, Brown earned her private pilot's license with a near perfect score, making her the first African American woman to earn a United States license to fly. That same year, she co-founded the National Airmen's Association of America, an organization whose mission was to get African Americans into the United States Air Force.
In 1939, she received a commercial pilot's license. She was the first African American woman to make a career of aviation and, according to biographer Betty K. Gumbert, was the person most responsible for preparing African American pilots for World War II.
In 1940, she and Lieutenant Cornelius R. Coffey started the Coffey School of Aeronautics, where approximately 200 pilots were trained in the next seven years. Some of those pilots later became part of the 99th Pursuit Squadron at Tuskegee Institute—also known as the legendary "Tuskegee Airmen." Willa's efforts were directly responsible for the squadron's creation, which led to the integration of the military in 1948.
With the establishment of the Coffey School of Aeronautics, Brown fulfilled Bessie's long standing dream of an African American-owned private flight school.
In 1941, promoted to the rank of Lieutenant, she became the first African-American officer in the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), and the U.S. government named her federal coordinator of the CAP Chicago unit.
Brown also lobbied Washington for the inclusion of African Americans in the Civilian Pilot Training Program and the Army Air Corps. In 1942, she became a training coordinator for the Civil Aeronautics Administration and a teacher in the Civilian Pilot Training Program.
In 1943, Brown enrolled in the Aeronautical University in Chicago and earned a Master Mechanic Certificate. By adding her mechanic's license, Willa became the first woman in the United States to have both a mechanic's license and a commercial pilot's license.
In 1946, Brown became the first African American woman to run for Congress.
In 1955, Brown married Rev. J.H. Chappell and became very active in the West Side Community Church in Chicago.
In 1972, she was appointed to the Federal Aviation Administration Women's Advisory Board in recognition of her contributions to aviation in the United States as a pilot, an instructor, and an activist.
She died on July 18, 1992 at the age of 86.
In 2003, Willa Brown Chappell was inducted into the Aviation Hall of Fame for her native state of Kentucky.
Aviator, politician, educator and activist, Will Brown drew strength and inspiration from the life work of her courageous predecessor, Bessie Coleman.
Compiled from http://www.ket.org/trips/aviation/chappell.htm and http://womenaviators.org/WillaBrown.html.