Airport officials approve pilot Willa B. Brown display

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Oct. 13—A unique display honoring Willa B. Brown will soon educate visitors to Terre Haute Regional Airport's terminal.

The Terre Haute pilot was the first Black woman to earn a commercial pilot's license in the United States, and the first woman in the U.S. to have both a pilot's license and an aircraft mechanic's license.

"She trained over 300 Tuskegee Airmen, because she had a school in Chicago, she and her husband (Cornelius Coffey), and she personally trained them, hands on. She is one of the best kept secrets in Terre Haute," Crystal Reynolds, a researcher, historian and member of the Indiana State University Black Alumni Association Network, told members of Terre Haute Regional Airport's board of directors.

"Every year the Tuskegee Airmen have a fly over of her grave in Chicago ... to honor her. We have not honored as we should. She went to Sarah Scott [Middle School] and lived on South 13 1/2 Street. She went to Wiley High School and Indiana State Normal School and she did a career teaching aviation and commerce in Chicago and Gary, but she is ours," Reynolds said of Terre Haute.

Brown graduated with a bachelor's degree from Indiana State Normal School in 1927. She also became the first Black officer in the Civil Air Patrol and was named a federal coordinator of the Civil Air Patrol Chicago unit. She co-founded the National Airmen's Association of America in 1937, with a goal to get Blacks into the United States Air Force and promote Black aviation.

In 1940, Brown and Lt. Cornelius R. Coffey started the Coffey School of Aeronautics where more than 200 pilots where trained over a seven-year period. In 1942, she became a training coordinator for the Civil Aeronautics Administration and a teacher in the Civilian Pilot Training Program.

Airport board members unanimously approved a display presented by Darrel Morton, senior manager of educational programs and diversity partnerships for Republic Airways and a member of the ISU Black Alumni Association Network.

"She was an aviator, she was a lobbyist, she was an educator," Morton said. "She is a tremendous person who has gone unnoticed over the years. We felt that it was time to really let the world know who she was. She is Terre Haute's own and she is Indiana's own."

Airport Executive Director Jeff Hauser said Willa spent a lot of years in Terre Haute.

"We actually had talked about this a couple of years ago of doing a display or an area and didn't know what. So we will take the display case in front of the restaurant, by the FAA stairs, for Willa Brown. We talked about going somewhere with ISU and the flight school, but I think the airport is a really great place to do that," Hauser said of the display.

Tammy Boland, a member of the Terre Haute City Council, told airport officials that Reynolds approached her with naming a street in honor of her.

"There is a process for that, but I asked Crystal [Reynolds] what she thought, given Willa Brown was an aviator, that it might be more appropriate to recognize her in a place where people would be more appreciative of her history," Boland said.

In 1972, Brown was appointed to the Federal Aviation Administration Women's Advisory Board. She died in 1992 at the age of 86.

Reporter Howard Greninger can be reached at 812-231-4204 or Follow on Twitter@TribStarHoward.

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