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Posted 5/16/2007 Printable Fact Sheet
Cornelius Coffey
American Aerospace Pioneer, Cornelius Robinson Coffey
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Cornelius Robinson Coffey

Cornelius Coffey was born in Newport, Arkansas, on September 6, 1903, just months before the Wright brothers' initial flight. Coffey took his first airplane ride when he was 13 and he was "hooked" on aviation for life. In 1925 he enrolled in a trade school on the South Side of Chicago to study automobile mechanics. John Robinson, a fellow black mechanic and friend of Coffey, shared a burning desire to fly.

Commercial flying schools would not accept them, but a black business man lent the two a vacant store front where they built a one-seat airplane powered by a motorcycle engine. They then taught themselves to fly.

The two were employed as auto mechanics by Emil Mack, the white owner of a Chevrolet dealership in Elmwood Park, Illinois, when they applied and were accepted at the Curtiss Wright School of Aviation in Chicago for an aviation mechanics training course. Upon reporting to the school for the start of classes, Coffey and Robinson were refused admittance when it was discovered they were black.

The school attempted to reimburse the two for their tuition, but their employer, Mr. Mack, threatened to sue the school if they were not allowed to enter. The school backed down and allowed Coffey and Robinson to attend. Two years later they graduated at the top of their class.

In the late 1930s, Coffey established the Coffey School of Aeronautics at Harlem Airport, located south of Chicago. From 1938 to 1945 more than 1,500 black students went through the school, including many who would later become Tuskegee Airmen.

After the war, Coffey served as an instructor at the Lewis School of Aeronautics in Lockport, and then at Dunbar Vocational High School in Chicago, training some of the first blacks to be hired as mechanics by commercial airlines. He died in Chicago on March 2, 1994.

Cornelius Coffey was the first black person to hold both a pilot's and mechanic's license. He was a recipient of the "Charles Taylor Master Mechanic Award" from the Federal Aviation Administration and was the first black American to have an aerial navigation intersection named after them by the FAA (the "Cofey Fix," a waypoint located on the VICTOR 7 airway over Lake Calumet, provides electronic course guidance to Chicago Midway Airport Runway 31 Left). Coffey also designed a carburetor heater that prevented icing and allowed airplanes to fly in all kinds of weather. Devices similar to his are still in use on aircraft today.

Coffey was the first black person to establish an aeronautical school in the United States. His school was also the only non-university affiliated aviation school to become part of the Civilian Pilot Training Program. His pioneering efforts led to the integration of black pilots into the American aviation industry.

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