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Giacinta Bradley Koontz

Willa Brown and the Civil Air Patrol

n July 1, 1946, President Harry

Truman signed Law 476, creating
the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) as a
benevolent, non-profit organization. Two
years later, Congress passed Law 557, officially
making the CAP an auxiliary of the newly
formed U.S. Air Force. It was a proud moment
for Willa Beatrice Brown (1906-1992), the first
black officer in the CAP (1942), and an advocate
for integrating the U.S. military. Recognition
of the CAP was won by private citizens who
volunteered their time, money, and personal
aircraft to protect the U.S. from enemy attack,
often without recognition.
During WWII, the CAP organized over
forty thousand men and women to form
chapters throughout the U.S. CAPs origins
can be traced to the New Jersey Division of
Aeronautics, headed then by Gil Robb Wilson
during the 1930s. In 1941, New York Mayor,
Fiorello LaGuardia, was Chief of the existing
Civil Defense. LaGuardia convinced President
Franklin Roosevelt to authorize CAP antisubmarine bases along the eastern coast of the
U.S. The CAP spotted, harassed, and later,
bombed enemy submarines, rescued downed
planes, and served functions similarly performed
by the U.S. Air Force. The CAPs wide variety
of small, single and multi-engine aircraft
required experienced mechanics. Recognizing
their diversity of skills and on-the-spot
ingenuity, historians have dubbed these heroes,
Maintenance Wizards.

Brown shown at the controls of an aircraft following her licensing as both a flying instructor and aircraft mechanic. Photo: The International Womens Air and Space Museum.

Administration from Northwestern University

in 1934.

Women composed twenty percent of the CAP

in capacities as administrators, as well as pilots
and aircraft mechanics. Willa Brown embraced
each of these jobs, and more.

Between 1927 and 1939, at the height of the

Great Depression, Brown managed to work in
several government jobs, including employment
as a public school teacher, social service worker,
and for the Works Public Administration

Brown was born in Kentucky during 1906,

but grew up in Chicago, Illinois. During the
windy citys years of prohibition and gang
wars, Willas father was a minister. Her parents
provided a stable home in which she had both
emotional and financial support. During a
period when racial segregation permeated
public schools and the military, Brown fearlessly
pursued her goals to become independent and
productive. After earning a BS in Business
from Indiana State Teachers College in 1927,
she went on to earn her Masters in Business

Sometime during those busy years,

emblemized by fliers of Bessie Coleman, Charles
Lindbergh, and Amelia Earhart, the lure of
aviation drew her in. She took flying lessons
from two black aviators who were well known
in the Chicago area during the 1930s; Dorothy
Darby and Col. John Robinson. Darby was
a graduate of Curtiss-Wright Aeronautical
University (CWAU) in Chicago and an
exhibition parachute jumper. Robinson was a
pioneer advocate for schools and organizations
promoting involvement of blacks in aviation.

The Academic


Clockwise: Willa Beatrice Brown pictured in her CAP uniform. Photo: National Museum
of the US Air Force. An ad for the Taylor Cub, powered by a Continental A-40 engine,
which was used for training students at the Coffey School of Aeronautics at Harlem Airport, Chicago during the 1930s. (D.D. Hatfield) The original logo of the Civil Defense
was adapted for the CAP by placing a propeller in the triangle. For further information
about the CAP:

The Master Mechanic

At CWAU, she was one of very few women,
yet she excelled and earned her aircraft
mechanics license in 1935. In 1938 she gained
her private pilots license after taking advanced
flying lessons at Harlem Airport from Cornelius
R. Coffey, who she knew through the Challenger
Airmens Association (CAA). Brown and Coffey
soon partnered to offer both academic and
practical education at The Coffey School of
Aeronautics where they imposed no restrictions
on gender or race. Brown was the schools
Director from 1940-1941.
Coffey remained the primary flight instructor
at their Harlem Airport location, while Brown
taught aircraft mechanic classes in Chicago.
Brown also became an excellent pilot and
instructor, often using the schools J3 Cub. A
student who was strapped for funds could
count on incidentals supplied by Brown and

Coffey. Some of their enrollees went on to

become members of the 99th Pursuit Squadron,
otherwise known as the Tuskegee Airmen during
During the pre-WWII years, Brown and
Coffey began their life-long advocacy, if not
profession, toward integrating nationally funded
aviation programs to include schools owned and
operated by blacks, with the ultimate goal of
racially integrating the Civilian Pilot Training
Program (CPTP) the Civil Air Patrol (CAP)
and the US Air Force. In their quest to change
a decades-old system, Coffey, Brown and their
contemporaries must have encountered several
challenging barriers that they overcame with
grace and safety.
The Advocate and Legacy of the CAP
Browns list of firsts will probably never be
fully known, as she was going where no other

black woman had previously gone. Including

her many achievements in aviation, she was
also the first black woman to run for Congress
(in Illinois, unsuccessfully in 1946, 1948, and

was inducted into the Kentucky Aviation Hall of

Fame in 2003.

After WWII, Brown appointed herself a

traveling advocate for the integration of aviation
programs. Giving exhibition flights and making
public appearances, Brown was an attractive and
eloquent representative of the future for equality
in the air. For all these attributes and more,
Brown is considered a major character in the
eventual integration of the US military by Order
of President Harry Truman in 1948.

The first air medals of WWII were presented

by President Roosevelt to two CAP pilots for
a rescue of airmen at sea. Sixty four CAP
members lost their lives while on duty. By
the end of the war the CAP had earned its
permanent place in US military defense. Todays
CAP headquarters are in Alabama at Maxwell
Air Force Base, and its functions have expanded
with opportunities in air and space technology,
and readiness for
modern national

Brown continued to teach and finally retired

from the public school system in 1971. In
1972 she was appointed to the FAA Womens
Advisory Board and remained active in several
national aviation organizations. She died of a
stroke in 1992, at age 86. Willa Beatrice Brown

Giacinta Bradley Koontz

is an aviation historian
and author. Visit her
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