Stories of Inspired Living




Blacks in Aviation

Coming Soon

Aviation Organizations

Aviation Resources

Aviation Opportunities

Blacks in Aviation features stories about individuals and groups that have made, or are making, significant contributions the field of aviation; and that encourage greater participation by Blacks in all aspects of flight.

Remembering Rufus Hunt – June 2020

On May 2, 2020, six distinguished members of Chicago’s Black aviation community held a virtual tribute to Rufus Hunt, who was one of Illinois’ most passionate aviators and aviation historians.  The event was hosted by’s founder, Dan Perkins, who knew and admired Rufus Hunt for nearly two decades. Rufus Hunt passed on Good Friday, April 10, 2020, at the age of 91.  He is among the many treasured seniors within the Afro American community who have succumbed  to COVID-19.  The six individuals that gathered for the virtual tribute were determined to celebrate an ordinary man, who lived an extraordinary life.  Rufus Hunt’s love for flying and for recounting the accomplishments of Black aviation pioneers inspired multiple generations of aviators, in the Black community and beyond.  Among those who paid tribute were individuals who could be regarded as Rufus Hunt’s crew, his mentees, and his inspiration.  They include Ken Rapier and Darryl Mack; Kevin Washington and Nia Gilliam-Wordlaw; and Luanne Wills-Merrill and Gigi Coleman.  Each member of this distinguished circle offered insights into the generous and activist spirit that was Rufus Hunt.

Dedicated Co-Pilots

Rufus Hunt touched many lives, in part, because he enjoyed the support of others, including two luminaries among Chicago’s aviation community: Darryl Mack, president of the Chicago Area Pilots Association (CAPA); and Ken Rapier, president of the Chicago “DODO” Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, Incorporated (TAI).  CAPA is an organization comprised of general aviation enthusiasts who are interested in exposing youth to the joys of aviation.  The Chicago “DODO” Chapter of TAI is a charitable organization whose mission is to perpetuate the historic legacy of the Tuskegee Airmen; and to encourage and assist minority youth in pursuing post-secondary education and careers in the aerospace industry.

The community of Black aviation enthusiasts in Chicago tends to be a generous and well-connected lot.  Relationships extend across generations and geography.  Members of the Chicago community are noted for their devotion to flying, Black history, their peers, and aspiring youth.  When Rufus Hunt wanted to conduct commemorative flights over the grave site of aviation pioneer Bessie Coleman, he reached out to his long-time friend, Ken Rapier, for support.  Rapier was quick to say yes; and it was a commitment Rapier did not make lightly.  In fact, it is a commitment Rapier continues to honor to this day.  Were it not for restrictions imposed on flights in Illinois, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rapier and his organization would have completed the 40th anniversary of the flyovers that Rufus Hunt helped institute.  Instead of doing the flyover, Rapier participated in this tribute to Hunt.

Both Mack and Rapier shared many fond memories of Rufus Hunt, but before the event ended, Darryl Mack made sure everyone knew that May 2020 was when Ken Rapier was scheduled to be inducted into the Illinois Aviation Hall of Fame.  It was another example of the generous spirit that pervades the Black aviation community in Chicago.  Originally from Compton, California, Darryl Mack began flying as a young adult and eventually became president of the California Black Aviation Association.   After he moved to Illinois, he helped establish the Chicago Area Pilots Association along with his good friend, Mr. Hunt. 

They say “birds of a feather, fly together;” and it is certainly true for Mr. Hunt and the circle of individuals he regarded as friends.  Below are remarks Darryl Mack and Ken Rapier shared during the tribute, beginning with with Ken Rapier, who knew Rufus Hunt since childhood.

Above, Ken Rapier is shown as he began sharing his long history with Rufus Hunt.

Ken Rapier

Rufus Hunt was visionary.  He assigned Black names to aerial intersections around Chicago; and he expanded the Bessie Coleman Memorial Flyover into a salute to Aviation’s Pioneering Colorful Women.

Additional reflections of Ken Rapier –

I first met Mr. Hunt at a church on Chicago’s Southside.  I was five years old at the time; and Mr. Hunt was 25 years old.  Rufus Hunt was the church’s Sunday School instructor; and he told me, if I was willing to accept Jesus Christ as my Savior, I was old enough to be baptized.  I said yes to Jesus; and was baptized.  That was the beginning of my long history with Mr. Hunt.  Years later, when I re-encountered Rufus Hunt, were both active in general aviation.

As we became reacquainted, Mr. Hunt informed me that he was looking for volunteers to help resurrect an annual  flyover commemorating the untimely death of Bessie Coleman, America’s most celebrated Black female aviator.  Coleman died in 1926, as the result of a mishap during an aerial show.  The commemoration of that unfortunate event involved civilian aviators flying in formation over Bessie Coleman’s grave site, which is located in Alsip, Illinois. For reasons that are unknown, the original flyovers had stopped.  Years later, Rufus Hunt re-instituted the flyovers; but expanded the focus to include other pioneering Black women of aviation.

At Rufus Hunt’s prompting, I joined the Chicago chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, which is known as the “DODO” Chapter; and I became a member of the Chicago Area Pilots Association. 

I am now the president of the Chicago “DODO” Chapter; and “DODO” members are continuing many of the aviation outreach programs Rufus Hunt initiated for Chicago’s Black aviation community; and the community at-large.  The Bessie Coleman Flyover was just one of many things Rufus Hunt was involved in. The Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) has a program called the Young Eagle’s Program, which gives youngsters free flights as a way to introduce them to the field of aviation.  The Young Eagles Program started in 1994, with the objective of flying one million youngsters in general aviation aircraft.  The flights were arranged as part of the 2003 centennial commemoration of the Wright brothers’ first flight.  The EAA met and exceeded its goal of exposing youngsters to aviation, within the targeted time period; but long before 1993, which is when the EAA first came up with the idea of giving young people free flights, Rufus Hunt was taking youngsters on free flights.  Rufus Hunt was giving youngsters in the Chicago area free introductory flights as early as 1973, which is when I first received my pilot’s license.  Rufus asked me to join him in conducting the free flights. ‘Just take them up for an airplane ride, so they can experience the joy of flight,’ he said.  Rufus was doing Young Eagle flights before they were called Young Eagle flights.”

The Young Eagles Program offered by the Chicago “DODO” Chapter began flying out of Miegs Field in 1994.  (The former Miegs Field was located just south of Chicago’s Solders Field, the legendary home field of the Chicago Bears.  The free Saturday morning flights were later moved to the Gary Airport, in Indiana, after Mayor Richard M. Daley illegally ordered Miegs Field destroyed in the middle of the night.)  Today, we conduct free introductory flights out of an airport that is located south of Chicago.

Above, Darryl Mack flashes a warm smile as he recalled the productive relationship he maintained with Rufus Hunt.

Darryl Mack

Rufus Hunt put his hand print on Black aviation.  Fifty years ago, he named a Memorial Day Weekend fly-in, “Operation Skyhook;” and that event and the name continue to this day.

Additional reflections of Darryl Mack –

In 1981, I met Rufus Hunt and Ken Rapier, down in Tuskegee Alabama.  That was about the time I got married and moved to Chicago.  I knew a lot of pilots who lived in Chicago, so I joined up with the Chicago Area Pilots Association and the Chicago Dodo Chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen. 

It was wonderful coming to Chicago; and having the opportunity to meet so many Black aviators I had read about.  I especially enjoyed meeting Gigi Coleman.  I knew her uncle, who lived in Southern California. 

One of the things I admire most about Rufus Hunt was his work keeping alive the legacy of Black women in aviation.  There are a lot of great women in Chicago; and some, like Nia Gilliam-Wordlaw, are in aviation today because of Rufus Hunt.

Mentor and His Mentees

If the measure of a person is determined by his or her impact on others, then when it comes to helping aspiring young people, Rufus Hunt was a giant of a man.  This was the assessment of two individuals who were directly influenced by Mr. Hunt as young adults.  For Kevin Washington, the exposure to Mr. Hunt led to an extended involvement with the aviation community in Chicago.  For Nia Gilliam Wordlaw, her association with Mr. Hunt led to the fulfillment of her dream of flying as a commercial pilot.  Below are their stories.

Above, Kevin Washington is shown listening attentively as fellow participants share memories of Rufus Hunt.

Kevin Washington

The word I associate most with Mr. Hunt is impact.  He had a tremendous impact on people with the knowledge he had about aviation history.  He was a wonderful man.

Additional Reflections of Kevin Washington –

My mother introduced me to Rufus Hunt when I was in my twenties. She knew he flew and arranged for me to fly with him.

When I was growing, my father had peaked my interest in aviation with airplane models. 

After I got out of the Navy, I worked with Rufus Hunt and the Young Eagles Program.  Through Mr. Hunt, I got to meet a lot of aviators; and I had the chance to do some aerial and ground photography once he started doing flyover tributes to Bessie Coleman. 

I was most impressed with Rufus Hunt’s knowledge of aviation history.  He would often point out errors and omissions in historical feature films, including the movie, The Red Tails.  I did not know African Americans flew bombers during World War 2, until Rufus Hunt pointed that out to me.

He was a great man.

Above, Nia Gilliam-Wordlaw laughs as she recalls a heartwarming memory of Rufus Hunt. Below are two images of Rufus Hunt and a very young Nia Gilliam.  The second image is from a newspaper clipping that tells of Chicago’s mayor declaring April 30, 1994 as “African-American Women in Aviation Day in Chicago” – thanks to Mr. Hunt.

Nia Gilliam-Wordlaw

I met Mr. Hunt in 1993, at 17yrs of age.  He was instrumental in my journey to accomplish my childhood dream of becoming an airline pilot.  He introduced me to Chicago’s black aviation community.  He knew everyone and introduced me to everyone!  He is known to others as an Aviation Historian, but to me, he was my Aviation Grandfather.

Additional reflections of Nia Gilliam-Wordlaw –

I met Mr. Hunt at a Civil Air Patrol meeting, a friend had invited me to attend.  I don’t know what it was, if he had a vision, or what; but he saw something in me, and was able to pull it out.   He took me under his wing, literally; and gave me a Young Eagles flight.  He introduced me to an entire community of Black aviators in the Chicagoland area that I did not know existed. 

I had wanted to fly ever since I was ten years old; and it took seven years before I was able to get connected with someone who could help me realize my dream.  At the time, there was no Internet, and no books that I knew of on Black aviators.  All I had was an article my mother brought home to me about Bessie Coleman.  I kept that article; framed it; and placed it on my bedside stand.  I knew that if she could accomplish her dream, at a time when racism, sexism and discrimination were prevalent, then I knew that in the 1990s, I could accomplish my own aviation dreams. 

To meet someone who I could be mentored by, and who could introduce me to a whole lot of people who looked like me, and who were very encouraging, inspiring, and motivating, was truly a blessing.  Mr. Hunt became so much a part of my life – ever since the age of seventeen. 

He is completely intertwined in my journey, and my accomplishing my goal of becoming a commercial airline pilot.

The journey from being an excited and impressionable young seventeen-year-old to becoming a commercial airline pilot was not an easy one.  It took a whole lot of work to wear the uniform I now wear. 

I grew up in Chicago, near O’Hare International Airport.  I watched a lot of planes flying in and out; and wondered where they were going.  I always wanted to be the pilot taking people to various locations; but I knew no one in aviation, no mechanics, or pilots – nothing!  My mom was a teacher; my dad worked at a VA hospital; so, for a while, it was just me, my dream, and the article of Bessie Coleman that I kept at my bedside.  I just read a lot of books. 

I was fortunate to meet Mr. Hunt while I was in high school.  After that, if there was anything going on in the aviation community involving airplanes, I was there with Mr. Hunt.  It was wonderful having someone so supportive of my dream – someone to motivate and encourage me. I used to call Mr. Hunt so often, I still remember his phone number; and that is going back to the days before cellphones, back to when all we had were landlines.”

Sources of Inspiration

For more than fifty years, Mr. Hunt quietly served the Black Aviation community in three distinctive ways:  1) he promoted aviation among Chicago-area youth; 2) he educated others about early Black aviation pioneers; and 3) he honored Black women in aviation – including women pilots, mechanics, and employees of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). 

The two women featured in this section represent a broad spectrum of pioneering Black women.  Luanne Wills-Merrill is an aviation safety inspector with the FAA.  She is responsible for the safety of the airspace beginning north of O’Hare Airport and continuing up to the Illinois-Wisconsin border.  Luanne Wills-Merrill studied aviation in college, and is a licensed general aviation pilot. 

Roughly fifty years before Wills-Merrill became a pilot, another young Black woman named Bessie Coleman left America for France, to study aviation.  After World War 1, aviation schools in America would not provide Bessie Coleman with the training required to become a pilot because she was Black.  So, Bessie Coleman did what she had to do; and after earning her license to fly in France, she returned to the United States and performed in aerial shows, until her death in 1926.  Today, Bessie Coleman’s great niece, Gigi Coleman, actively promotes aviation awareness and opportunities aimed at aspiring and under-served youth in Chicago, and beyond.  Both Luanne Wills-Merrill and Gigi Coleman offer thoughtful accounts of their association with Rufus Hunt.

Below, Luanne Wills-Merrill with her copy of “The Cofey Intersection,” written by Rufus A. Hunt; and a T-Shirt designed by Rufus Hunt, featuring Aviation’s Colorful Women: Bessie Coleman, Willa Brown and Janet Harmon-Bragg.


Luanne Wills-Merrill

When I think of Mr. Hunt, the word “legendary” comes to mind.  He shared the history of people who were legends in aviation; but he also helped create legends.

Additional reflections of Luanne Wills-Merrill –

I met Rufus Hunt many years ago, when he came to my office at the FAA to obtain a waiver to perform the Bessie Coleman flower drop, (as part of the grave site flyover).  At the time, I had no idea who Bessie Coleman was.  Rufus Hunt introduced me to her story. 

Another important person I discovered through Mr. Hunt was Cornelius Coffey, a pioneering Black aviation mechanic.  Mr. Hunt wrote a book about Mr. Coffey, and I still have a copy of his book. He just enjoyed keeping the legacy of early Black aviators alive.  In fact, Mr. Hunt did something rather special for me.  I am the first Black female aviation safety inspector (in the FAA); and because of that fact, Rufus Hunt had an aviation intersection named after me.  At the time, Mr. Hunt worked at the FAA; and knew how to get that done.  He did that for a number of Blacks aviation pioneers.

I did not ask to have an intersection named after me.  It came as a complete surprise. I did not get into aviation to be the first anything.  I was not aware that I was the first Black female safety inspector; but Rufus Hunt knew.  He knew everything about Blacks in aviation.  He always made sure that things were documented, and he always got the word out.  I have this T-shirt that Mr. Hunt had made; it celebrates Women of Color in Aviation.  The T-shirt features Bessie Coleman, Willa Brown, and Janet Harmon-Bragg, three early Black aviators.

Rufus Hunt maintained a lot of information about Blacks in aviation, which was great because the FAA always celebrated Black History Month with some type of program.  A woman in the Public Affairs named Margery Chris, got together with Rufus Hunt to conduct extensive research on Blacks in aviation.  Their work resulted in a traveling exhibition for the FAA and several museums.  Their work eventually led to a display at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC.  Mr. Hunt was always seeking ways to keep alive the names and stories of Black aviators.

Below, Gigi Coleman-Brooms shares a photograph of her mother, Marion Coleman, who is shown holding a photograph of her aunt, Bessie Coleman.


Gigi Coleman-Brooms

Mr. Hunt was always there for our family; and he was always there for our youth, always inspiring others.  Thank you, Rufus, for everything!!!

Additional reflections of Gigi Coleman-Brooms –

Mr. Hunt was a friend of the (Coleman) family.  He was always at our house; and he and my mother would have lots of conversations on various issues.  One of the things he wanted to do was the flyover tributes to Bessie Coleman, which he was able to start with the help of my mother and other family members.  My mother and Mr. Hunt started an organization that bore my great aunt’s name, Bessie Coleman.  The organization attracted lots of people, and it was just one of several organizations that Mr. Hunt supported around the country that sought to preserve the legacy of Bessie Coleman. 

Mr. Hunt was always encouraging my family members to keep the legacy of Bessie Coleman alive.  He was very instrumental in getting the commemorative stamp made of Bessie Coleman; and also with her induction in the National Aviation Hall of Fame. 

I really appreciated everything he did, along with my mother, to make sure Bessie Coleman was known in the aviation community, all over.

I have a personal memory I would like to share.  When I was little, Mr. Hunt took me and a girlfriend up in his plane.  I was so afraid.  The plane was nothing like a 747.  I recall screaming once we got up in the air.  I wanted to get back down on the ground.  Mr. Hunt told me to calm down; but I just wanted him to bring me back down.  As I think back on that experience, I now think it was wonderful.  Over the years, I have thought about my Aunt Bessie, flying around in small planes; and I have often wondered why was I so afraid, when she wasn’t afraid.  But, I have to tell you, I was afraid.

As for Mr. Hunt, he was a wonderful man; he truly was.

Nia Gilliam-Wordlaw reflects upon a special evening in February 2020 –

Mr. Hunt always carried around a picture of himself with a handful of Black aviators that was taken in the early 1980s.  He loved showing that photo to me and other people he met along the way.  He was such an advocate for Black women in aviation; it gave me confidence I needed throughout my journey.

Black female commercial pilots represent such a small number in our industry, less than half of one-percent.  Back in 2016, I, along with a U.S. Coast Guard pilot named Angel Hughes, formed an organization called Sisters of the Skies.  The goal of the organization is to encourage and support young Black girls and women of color who fly as a profession. 

Two years ago, we began hosting galas to raise scholarships that assist Black women, and women of color, who are studying aviation.  This year, at our February gala, we recognized Mr. Hunt as an aviation historian who has done much for Black women in aviation.  It was very moving for me to recognize him at the event, before members of an organization I helped establish, especially because Rufus Hunt made so many direct and significant contributions to my career in aviation. 

The most special moment of that evening was the photo I took with Mr. Hunt along with other Black commercial pilots, many of whom are the first with their airlines.  The evening is one that I will always remember. 

Knowing Mr. Hunt was been Life-Changing.

A fond memory of Rufus Hunt from Nia Gilliam-Wordlaw and Sisters of the Skies.

A Special Salute to an Exceptional Man

Below, Rufus Hunt, at 91, is recognized for his enduring support of pioneering Black women in aviation, by Nia Gilliam-Wordlaw, co-founder of Sisters of the Skies, at the organization’s February 2020 gala. Over his shoulder, on the projection screen, is a photo taken in the 1980s of Rufus Hunt with young Black women eager to pursue careers in aviation.  “He loved showing that photo to me and other people he met along the way,” said Gilliam-Wordlaw.

Rufus Hunt and distinguished Black women in aviation pause for a photo during the Sisters of the Skies annual gala, held in February of 2020, in San Francisco, California.  The gala was Hunt’s last public appearance. 

Rufus Hunt and extraordinary women in aviation.

Ken Rapier generously assembled a list of Aerial Intersections that are named for African Americans, thanks to Rufus Hunt who had responsibility for naming intersections while he worked for the Federal Aviation Administration.

More Coming Soon

A lasting gift from Rufus Hunt.

Aviation Intersections named for Black Aviators

BESIE – Bessie Coleman

COFEY – Cornelius Cofey

BELVI and DUNDY – Beverly Dunjill

TALOR – George Taylor

PAPPI – Marshal Pappy Knox

HERVY – Henry Hervy

AHMED – Ahmed Sammy Rayner

HALIE – Halie Salasse

WILLA – Willa Brown

DEBOW – Charles Debow

HURDD – Harold Hurd

SPANN and WATSN – Spann Watson

FELIX – Felix Kirkpatrick

JANET and BRAGG – Janet Harmon Bragg

CHIEF – Chief Alfred Anderson

LUANN – Luanne Wills-Merrill