Perez’s debut historical novel fictionalizes the story of three pioneering black aviators who changed the face of aeronautics.
When one thinks about America’s aviation heroes, the Wright brothers, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart come to mind. Lesser known are Cornelius C. Coffey, John C. Robinson and Willa B. Brown, real-life African-American historical figures who revolutionized aviation from the late 1920s through World War II. Brown was a schoolteacher in Gary, Ind., with a mind for machines, while Robinson and Coffey were working as well-regarded but underpaid auto mechanics. All had a desire to fly, and their paths crossed at a Walgreens drug store, when Willa, working temporarily as a waitress and cashier, overheard the two young men talking about a plane they had built. They insisted that she come see it, and the rest is history. Coffey and Robinson studied for and obtained pilot’s licenses (despite a stated “no colored” student policy), becoming the first black men in the United States to do so. They ran their own hangar in Robbins, Ill., eventually relocating to Chicago and founding the Coffey School of Aeronautics in 1935 with Willa Brown as Director, making it the only integrated flight school at the time. With the support of powerful parties—including first lady Eleanor Roosevelt—the three continued to break Jim Crow–era boundaries, including the U.S. Army’s race barrier, by managing the first black-operated government-funded flight school during World War II. For all of their accomplishments, it’s hard to believe that more people don’t affiliate them with the history of flight. Perez, a filmmaker, paces the novel well, tackling more than a decade’s worth of change in the field of aeronautics and its place in a racially divided country. But he balances more serious matter with his characters’ joy of flying as they soar at more than 300 mph, doing barrel rolls and loop-the-loops. Although the mechanical detail can sometimes be tedious, the author keeps the story moving with ample dialogue and glimpses into his protagonists’ personal lives. Unfortunately, with so much buildup leading to World War II, relatively little literary real estate is given to the characters’ post-war years.
An engaging, thorough novel about forgotten heroes of aviation history.