National Aviation Week and Native Americans in Aviation

National Aviation Week in August celebrates achievements in the world of flight, including the birthday of Orville Wright on Aug. 19, who along with his brother Wilbur, achieved the first successful flight of an aircraft in 1903. Today, we’re also celebrating several notable Native Americans in aviation.

Bessie Coleman and John Herrington

Bessie Coleman was the first person of Native American (Cherokee) and African American descent to hold a pilot’s license. Coleman was inspired by her brothers’ stories of French women pilots from The Great War. At the time, no flight schools in America accepted women so she applied to the Caudron Brothers’ School of Aviation in France and earned an international pilot’s license in 1921. She also became popular for her stunt flying and air performances across Europe and the U.S. Coleman wanted to own her own plane and open her own flight school, but she died in a plane crash before that dream could be realized.

Mary Riddle, Clatsop and Quinault from Seattle, was qualified to fly solo in 1930. She earned her pilot’s license and later her commercial license but was best known as a performing parachutist. She was inspired to fly at the age of 17 when she happened to see a woman crash a plane. It was said women would never be successful pilots, but she wanted to prove them wrong and help “fill the sky with thunderbirds.”

John Herrington, Chickasaw from Oklahoma, was the first Native American to walk in space. He was designated as a naval aviator in 1985 and has logged over 3,300 flight hours in more than 30 different aircrafts. NASA selected Herrington to participate in the 16th shuttle mission to the International Space Station in 2002. During his spacewalk, Herrington honored his Native heritage by carrying six eagle feathers, a braid of sweet grass, two arrowheads and the Chickasaw flag. He now travels the country giving presentations about his life.

Aaron Yazzie, Navajo from Tuba City, Arizona, supported NASA’s Mars landing in 2018. He built the pressure inlet that functions as the “eyes and ears” of the InSight lander to help secure more accurate readings about the planet’s interior – a next step in NASA sending astronauts to Mars. Yazzie says the crust of Mars reminds him of the Navajo Nation and that he is learning Earth and Mars are not so different. Yazzie is currently focused on Mars 2020 to look for signs of microbial life and prepare for human exploration.

Cherise John, Navajo from Fruitland, New Mexico, is an expert in thermal cooling and turbine design for military and commercial engines. Cherise was always environmentally conscious, good at math and encouraged from a young age to reach for the stars. She studied language abroad through a Dartmouth program and later earned two master’s degrees – one from Ohio State University in environmental engineering and one from Northern Arizona University in mechanical engineering. Today, John is a lead engineer in turbo-aerodynamics for GE Aviation and a STEM advocate for Native youth.

Whether pilot, astronaut or engineer, we celebrate these Native Americans for their leadership and contributions to aviation. Want to know more? Read about early Native women aviators and U.S. Army helicopters named after tribes – a tradition that honors exceptional service and the 32 Native Americans who earned a Medal of Honor.

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