Lessons on Early Aviation with Bessie Coleman

Bessie Coleman paved the way as the first black and Native American woman to earn a pilot's license in 1921. What was flying like back then?

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD
4-minute read
Episode #274

image of early airplaneBessie Coleman was the first woman of Native American descent (specifically part Cherokee) and the first black woman to hold a pilot’s license, which she earned in 1921. At the time, there were no opportunities for African Americans, Native Americans, or women to fly planes in the United States, nor teachers willing to teach them, so she traveled to France after saving enough money to study there.

Coleman was born to sharecropper parents in Texas in 1892 and died only five short years after earning her pilot’s license in 1926 when she crashed her plane while testing a new aircraft. Commercial flights did not begin in earnest until the late 1920s and early 1930s so pilots like Coleman—or “Queen Bess” as she was popularly known—often made their living as stunt pilots in air shows. Her demonstrations involved figure eights, loops, and dips that took her close to the ground.

In honor of Bessie Coleman and Black History Month, let’s take a look at what flying was like in the 1920s and '30s, as well as the basic theory behind why planes fly.

Basic Theory of Flight

Planes fly thanks to the principles of what is called heavier-than-air flight. (Lighter-than-air flight, like that of hot air balloons, works under different principles like buoyancy and density.) A very, very simplified picture of the heavier-than-air flight that keeps planes—and birds—soaring through the air is a perfect balance of four forces on the aircraft, namely lift, weight, thrust, and drag.

While the plane’s weight pulls it down to Earth, lift is a mechanical force that opposes this weight and can thus overcome gravity. Lift is generated by the motion of air over a surface which means every part of the plane can contribute to its lift, but most of the upward force is generated by the wings. The relationship between the speed of the air and the pressure differences the motion creates are part of the Bernoulli’s equation, named after the Swiss mathematician Daniel Bernoulli and a key contribution to our understanding of flight. And although we know overall that Bernoulli’s equation works, there are still disagreements among experts as to exactly why.

The drag force is the resistance the plane experiences against its forward motion. Facing a headwind, a pilot may choose to increase a plane’s speed which burns more fuel and can lead to a higher drag force. There is even a single-engine biplane known as the An-2 which can appear to fly backwards in a strong headwind. Thrust works against drag to propel the plane forward. The thrust produced by the plane’s engine relies on thermodynamics and other physics to keep the plane moving forward.

Early Challenges in Flight

As early aviators and engineers learned how to create lift most efficiently, lightening the weight of an aircraft as much as possible was crucial. Early planes were first made from lightweight materials like wood and canvas like the spruce and ash muslin-covered frame that made up the Wright Brothers’ first plane. Unfortunately, these planes tended to be less durable. To strengthen planes against the elements and other stressors of flight, aircraft were eventually made of aluminum, as was the Ford Tri-Motor plane, one of the first passenger planes in 1928. Aluminum is lightweight, strong, and doesn’t corrode as easily as steel.


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About the Author

Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD

Dr Sabrina Stierwalt earned a Ph.D. in Astronomy & Astrophysics from Cornell University and is now a Professor of Physics at Occidental College.