How an Early Black Pilot Soared Above Setbacks

Posted on Fri, February 16, 2018

Janet Waterford Bragg was a pioneer female African American pilot whose leadership in black pilot organizations in the 1930s paved the way for other aviators.

After graduating from high school in 1927, she enrolled in Spellman College in Atlanta and earned a degree in nursing from MacBicar Hospital on Spellman's campus. Eventually she moved to Chicago and began her nursing career.

Janet Waterford Bragg and family

Janet Waterford Bragg (far right) poses with relatives, circa 1937. A registered nurse, Bragg purchased the first aircraft for the Challenger Air Pilot’s Association, Chicago’s first black flying club.

In 1933, she enrolled in the Curtiss Wright Aeronautical School where she was the only woman in an aircraft mechanics class of 24 black men. Although her race and gender provided constant challenges, she continued to pursue her passion for flying.

While doing postgraduate work at Loyola University and the University of Chicago, she worked as a registered nurse at several hospitals and saved enough money to buy her first plane for $500. She shared her new aircraft with other flying enthusiasts. This group, inspired by Bessie Coleman, formed the Challenger Air Pilots Association, which later evolved into the Coffey School of Aeronautics.

“That little plane…It just seemed like you could talk to it, or it would talk to you. You merge right into the plane, it’s the feeling you get. I knew that little old plane was doing everything for me.” - Janet Bragg, oral history interview with the National Air and Space Museum, 1989

The Association built its first airstrip in the township of Robbins, Illinois, in 1933. However, Bragg encountered discrimination against women at the Tuskegee black pilot training school—when she passed the flight test for her commercial license, she was denied the license. She eventually received her commercial license in 1943 at the Pal-Waukee Airport near Chicago.

During World War II Bragg tried to join the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs), but was turned down because of her skin color. After the war, she purchased a Super Cruiser, in which she logged many hours of cross-country flying. Bragg continued to fly for pleasure into the 1970s. Her autobiography, Soaring Above Setbacks, with Marjorie Kriz, was published in 1996.

Janet Bragg

Janet Bragg