Aviation Training Returns to One Chicago Vocational High School

You may have heard of Bessie Coleman, the pioneering African American pilot from Chicago. But there is much more to the history of black aviation in this town, and the story has inspired local pilot and aircraft mechanic Umberto Ricco to offer an aviation training program for free at one Chicago high school. 

Dunbar Vocational High School on the South Side was one of several city high schools that offered an aircraft mechanics track from the 1950s into the ‘90s. The program at Dunbar was created and run by Cornelius Coffey, considered by many to be one of the most influential African American aviators of all time. 

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  • Cornelius Coffey

    Cornelius Coffey

  • Willa Brown

    Willa Brown

  • John Robinson

    John Robinson

In the 1930s, most schools that trained pilots and aircraft mechanics were closed to African Americans, so Coffey created the Coffey School of Aeronautics, which he ran with his wife Willa Brown and John Robinson. They also founded the National Airmen Association to promote the idea of African Americans being trained as fighter pilots in World War II. 

As Ricco learned more about this history, he was surprised that so few people seemed to know about it. So he created a kind of traveling museum and would park it on a street on the South Side, and then in cities across the country, to share the story with the world. Videographer Keith O’Derek made a documentary about his visit to Los Angeles (see below).

In fact, we found out about the story when Ricco brought his travelling museum to the WTTW parking lot. 

Video: Umberto Ricco visits Los Angeles with his travelling museum about Chicago’s African American aviation history. 

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