Coleman wanted to learn to fly after listening to two of her brothers tell stories from their time serving in France during World War I: Women in France could fly airplanes. No one would teach Coleman how to fly in the United States, so she learned French and went to France to earn a pilot certificate through the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.
“She was flying airplanes before most Americans had even seen one in the sky,” said A Pair of Wings author and United Airlines first officer Carole Hopson.
Hopson, who had been enamored with aviation since she was four years old, lying on the grass at her grandmother’s house watching airliners approach Philadelphia International Airport, had never heard of Coleman until she started pursuing a career in aviation in her 30s. During an aviation conference, American Airlines Capt. Jenny Beatty handed Hopson a mug that featured a picture of Coleman and two paragraphs about her life.
“How had I not known about her? She was not in any history book. She was not in any textbook that I had read in high school, college, middle school, [or] graduate school, and I wanted to change that,” said Hopson, who enjoyed successful careers as a newspaper reporter and with the NFL, Foot Locker, and L’Oréal Cosmetics before devoting her time to flight training with the goal of becoming a professional pilot. “She became such a hero to me that I had to write her story.”
Hopson said she decided to write a historical fiction book to appeal to a broader audience.
Hopson earned the certificates and ratings needed to go to the airlines just a few months before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. During the subsequent airline downturn, she and her husband decided to start a family.
“I blinked and those 14 years, they just went by,” she said of raising their two boys. During that time, she kept her hand in aviation and worked on the novel. She turned 50 and decided “it was either now or never” and went to the airlines.
Releasing A Pair of Wings to raise awareness of Coleman is just one of Hopson’s goals: She also hopes to one day release a movie and is working toward enrolling 100 Black women in the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals’ Lt. Col. Luke Weathers Jr. Flight Academy by 2035. The school, named after a member of the Tuskegee Airmen from Tennessee who was also the first African American FAA air traffic controller, launched in 2018 as a 501(c)3 flight school so it costs about $50,000 compared to $150,000 at for-profit schools to get someone from “zero to hero or zero to shero,” Hopson said.
Hopson strategically chose to seek 100 Black women because of the business need, she explained. The pre-coronavirus-pandemic pilot shortage remains post-pandemic, and Black women represent an untapped labor pool in aviation.
There are “about 100,000 people who fly for a living in the U.S. Of that number, 5 to 7 percent are women, and of that number, 3 percent are African American. Of that number, the number of women, Black women, who fly for a living in the majors are less than 100 … and we have to change that,” Hopson said.
Hopson will launch the Jet Black Foundation in November to raise $7 million to help fund part of the training for the 100 women. Twenty percent of the book sales from A Pair of Wings will also be donated to the foundation. The women will need to pay for their private pilot training, and then the foundation will help pay for the remaining $42,000 of their training. Hopson will begin working with about 12 high schools and six colleges and community colleges to prepare women for the academy.
“I didn’t know any pilots. I didn’t know any girls who flew. I didn’t know any Black girls who flew. I didn’t know any Black girls with eyeglasses who flew, and I was all of those things,” Hopson said. By sharing Coleman’s story and helping more Black women become professional pilots, she’s working to change that for future generations.
A Pair of Wings: The Life of Pioneer Aviatrix Bessie Coleman is available for preorder on Amazon, can be ordered through your local bookstore, and can be purchased at Hopson’s website. Paperback costs $14.95; hardcover, $24.95; and Kindle, $7.99.