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Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Flying back to the origin-thanks Cookie

In honor of women's history month I dedicate this blog post to Torreah 'Cookie' Washington who is the inspiration for this blog. I am stealing her post from Facebook.

This is a picture of her next to the awesome quilt she made for the "Quilts for Obama: An Exhibit Celebration of our 44th President" at the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. So she flew pretty freaking high that day!

Happy Women's History Month.

Believe YOU can Fly Too!

 Dear Sisters, I thought it was time to write about why I believe we need to rediscover that we can fly.

 My name is Cookie Washington, I was an Air Force brat growing up. I grew up on and around Air Force Bases in the US and abroad.
I have a an old black and white photo of me about age 3 standing on the wing of a C-5 with my father and older sister... I love that photo...
I love and have always loved airplanes and flying... I love the noise, I love the smell of jet fuel, I like the flight suits....

 When I was 12 and we lived in Clovis, NM, home of Cannon AFB, I would sneak out to the fence that ran along side the flight line and lay in the grass as close to the fence as I dared because I could feel the rumble of the airplanes on the earth before they became airborne. It thrilled me! It was my secret, I wanted to be a pilot when I grew up, I wanted to fly the F-16 for ten years, then I wanted to go into the space program and become an "astro-nett" (ok so I was not liberated enough to think "female astronaut..." I wanted a pretty pink flight suit and matching helmet... But I wanted to fly, and FAST... I loved, in the way that some women love a man, I loved the F-16 Flying Falcon from the moment I saw it... The F-16 is a single engine, multi-mission, tactical aircraft.

 I loved that it was sleek, shiny, had great maneuverability and was fast... It did not occur to me in the Vietnam era that the "F" in "F- 16" was for fighter, and somewhere outside of my romantic image the USAF had plans for this plane I would later be protesting big time....
I wanted to fly, I have never been a follow the crowd kind of girl, this is probably because I was a sickly, loner, bookish girl who lived inside my head way too much, none of my gal pals seemed to want to fly, but they did not want to do a lot of the things I did.
My beloved stepfather, now of blessed memory, took me to every airshow and anything that was going on where planes were involved.

 He never told me, "You can't fly." He told me I would be a very pretty astro-nett and I better do better in math because I would need to know it to get thru pilot school.
My mother never said, "You can't fly."

 There are things the adults in my life told me I could not do, but thank GOD/Goddess, nobody ever said to me, "Cookie, you can't fly." Or, "little black girls do not become pilots."
They encouraged me to go for it, even though they or I had never seen a black woman pilot. I never even noticed. I was so focused on becoming an Air Force pilot.
Well fast forward, to high school. I kept my dream alive and Pops, had retired from the USAF at Kirkland AFB home of the F-16's! I was sure this was a sign.
I took the Military Service entrance exam, I scored really high.
I was redesigned that pink flight suit in my head daily.
Went to take the physical...
Dr Simmons is the one who finally told me, "Honey, you will never fly..."
I was too short to get into flight school, and really not quite tall enough to get into the Air Force.
I was fat, more that 50 pounds over my "ideal" weight.
I had asthma.
And I wore and still wear glasses.
I was never going to be an Air force F-16 Flying Falcon pilot, I was never going to be a Thunderbird, and I was never going to be an astronaut...
I was grounded...
How does one deal with a dream deferred?
You cry. I cried a lot. And I cried a lot more.
Then I got over it and lived the rest of my life.
And I learned to FLY!

Fly in other ways... I went to college, I had 2 amazing children, I inherited another amazing child. I started my own business from scratch with almost no money. I am an artist, a mother, a good friend and everybody's cheerleader, a passionate political activist.
In 2002, I flew to Houston from Charleston, SC. I got on the plane, and I always look in the cockpit, I have this thing about not wanting to fly on a plane with a pilot that looks younger than me. There in the cockpit was a beautiful African American woman pilot.
I asked her if she was the Captain? She said no she was the First Officer.
Tears sprang to my eyes. I was holding up the line of passengers trying to board the plane.
I am usually very polite, but this was BIG, I needed to ask questions and those folks would have to wait...

 She was kind and charming and I was so impressed. I realized, with all the flying I have done in my life, I had never been on a flight with a Black woman pilot. Have you?
Surely, she was not the only Sister flying?
The flight attendant forced me to my seat. I sat there sobbing, with joy and wonder and questions.

Why had I never seen a Black woman pilot before, and why had I not noticed?
In 2003 I discovered thru the Women in Aviation Organization, something that grounded me again.
I asked for statistics on the number of Black Women pilots, commercially.
The answer came back; "14."
"OK," I said, "Now is that the number flying for American or Delta?" thinking I was getting the information by airline.
"No." was my answer. "There are only 14 (fourteen) Black women pilots."
"In America?" I asked?
"No. That is worldwide."
"Uhm, wait a minute, excuse me... does this include Fed Ex and UPS pilots too?"
"Yes, I am afraid it does."
Holy shit! This did not make sense.
"Are you sure, you don't mean 114 pilots?"
She did not mean 114 pilots.
I put the phone down in shock.
"Shit" I said again... I will never forget that phone call.
"Why are there only 14 black women pilots in the world?"
The answer came to me almost immediately...
"Because nobody told us we COULD fly."

 I spent the next week being the most annoying woman in Charleston, and on the internet. I must have asked over 200 people, on the phone, in the store, on line, and in church, "Hey, do you know who Willa Brown is? Do you know who Bessie Coleman is?"
Out of those 200 or so responses I got less than 5 yeses and Bessie Coleman had her own US Postal stamp!

So it is my personal mission to spread the news about these two brave trail blazing sisters from the dawn of aviation.
Here is the way I see this problem.
If you went to public schools in America and did not do any outside reading of African America history, you learned if you were lucky, about Phyllis Wheatley, first African American poetess and a slave sold into slavery in 1761.
If not then you learned about Harriet Tubman, "conductor" on the Underground Railroad, and escaped slave. 1860's.

 Then you read about Sojourner Truth, abolitionist, women's rights activist and slave. Her "Ain't I a Woman speech was given in 1851.
Then according to most popular textbooks in America when I was growing up, the next Black woman we learned about was Rosa Parks.
Finally! An African American woman who was not a slave!
However she was "speaking truth to power" while being oppressed by the white majority.
As proud as I am of these women, I feel there are huge holes in our leaning about our "sister-mothers."

I have included short bios on Bessie Coleman and Willa Brown.

Sisters I challenge you, to tell anyone who will listen about these great women.
We, you and I are descendents, yes of slaves, but also of these women who fought like Hell and won their own piece of Sky...

I am telling YOU, You can FLY! I can Fly, and we can help other sisters, especially the young ones learn that they can FLY... Someone has opened the heavens for us and we can find our wings. Up we go into the wild blue yonder....
You do not have to be a pilot to fly, to SOAR, but know that we can...
Thank you for reading this too long rant.
Cookie Washington
3:15 AM May 26th, 2008

Still Aiming High....
Bessie Coleman (January 26, 1892 – April 30, 1926) was a pioneering African American aviatrix and was the first American of any race or gender to hold an international pilot's license
But Bessie Coleman, had to receive her pilot's license in France, because no U.S. pilots' program would accept her. She attained her certification in 1921 after only seven months, becoming the very first African American woman in the world to be licensed to fly an aircraft.
Bessie Coleman would not live long enough to fulfill her greatest dream—establishing a school for young, black aviators—but her pioneering achievements served as an inspiration for a generation of African American men and women. "Because of Bessie Coleman," wrote Lieutenant William J. Powell in Black Wings 1934, dedicated to Coleman, we have overcome that which was worse than racial barriers. We have overcome the barriers within ourselves and dared to dream.

 Dr. Mae Jemison physician and former NASA astronaut, wrote in the book, Queen Bess: Daredevil Aviator (1993): "I point to Bessie Coleman and say without hesitation that here is a woman, a being, who exemplifies and serves as a model to all humanity: the very definition of strength, dignity, courage, integrity, and beauty. It looks like a good day for flying."

The first African American woman to achieve her pilot's license on U.S. soil was Willa Beatrice Brown. Brown enrolled in the Aeronautical University in Chicago, earning a Master Mechanic certificate in 1935. Under the tutelage of certified flight instructor and aviation mechanic Cornelius Coffey, she earned her private pilot's license in 1938, passing her exam with a near perfect score of 96 percent. When Willa earned her pilot's license, it made her the first African American woman to be licensed in the United States. Two years later she married Cornelius Coffey, who would become one of the Tuskegee Airmen. She was also a founding member of the National Airmen Association of America, the sole purpose of which was to lobby Congress for the racial integration of the U.S. Army Air Corps.

 In 1941, with her flying service and aviation credentials, the U.S. government named Willa as the federal coordinator of the Chicago unit of the Civil Air Patrol civilian pilot training program. She was ranked an officer in this first integrated unit. Her efforts were directly responsible for the creation of the renowned Tuskegee Airmen, which led to the integration of the U.S. military services in 1948. She was instrumental in training more than 200 students who went on to become Tuskegee pilots.

 Her interests didn't end at aviation, though. Brown became the first African American woman to run for Congress in 1946. She campaigned again in 1948 and 1950 before pursuing other interests. She married a minister in 1955 and taught aeronautics at Westinghouse High School until the 1970s. Willa Beatrice Brown Chappell died in July 1992. She was 86 years old.