Smith remembers that Coffey and his instructors washed out few students, almost willing the young men and women to succeed.
Smith himself struggled until Brown rescued him. She asked Smith to go for a ride one day. Smith, who was six-foot-two and weighed 210 pounds, and the five-foot-two Brown took off in a Cub.
“She said, ‘I’ve been watching you, Quentin, and I know you can learn to fly. Let me show you something,’ ” he remembers. “She pulled it up into a stall and we spun seven or eight times—and you don’t spin a Cub!—and then she pulled it out and this little lady said to me, ‘You can’t be King Kong, Quentin. You’ve got to be gentle. You’re going to learn to fly today.’ ” And he did. Smith completed training at Tuskegee and was assigned to a bomber group based in Seymour, Indiana.
Bev Dunjill’s connection to Harlem began in 1943 as a 16-year-old member of the Civil Air Patrol. He remembers Coffey as attentive. “He saw in me a kid who wanted to fly so bad he could taste it,” says Dunjill, who at 82 lives just a few miles east of the old airport site. “He was a wonderful man. He was such an important person in my life.”
Coffey offered to pay the black teenager 50 cents an hour to work at Harlem, plus give him 30 minutes of flying time each weekend. Dunjill instantly accepted, though he didn’t tell his airplane-fearing mother for six months. Each day Dunjill rode a streetcar to the end of the line at 63rd Street, where Coffey met him and drove him to the airport. The teen spent his days pushing airplanes from the hangar, washing fuselages, and performing minor maintenance.
The exact number of pilots that the Harlem wartime program turned out is unknown, but it was in the hundreds. No airplane was ever wrecked.
After the war, Coffey did some work at Harlem, but spent most of the next two decades teaching aviation mechanics in high schools and an area college.
Some of the aviators from Harlem’s early years went on to have distinguished careers. Coffey himself got a patent on a popular carburetor warming system, and the Federal Aviation Administration honored him with an aerial navigation waypoint (“Cofey Fix” in FAA spelling) to align aircraft landing at Chicago Midway Airport. Harold Hurd was inducted into the Illinois Aviation Hall of Fame. Dale White broke employment barriers for black mechanics. Willa Brown ran twice (unsuccessfully) for Congress, the first black woman to try for a Congressional seat. Quentin Smith stayed active in aviation, becoming president of the Gary, Indiana Regional Airport Authority. And Bev Dunjill, who had entered the cadet program at Tuskegee as World War II ceased, re-enlisted in 1949 and became an F-86 jet combat instructor in Korea, along with a pilot named Gus Grissom.
In the post-war years, Harlem Airport grew even busier, with six flying schools, a repair service, and half a dozen hangars. Forty acres were added, and 10 unpaved runways crisscrossed the field.
But in September 1956 the airport lost its lease. A parcel of land that had once been a cornfield was transformed once more, this time into a residential subdivision and a shopping center named Southfield Plaza. Today, customers walk to Shop ’N Save, Hobby Lobby, and Walgreens on pavement where leather-helmeted pilots once revved engines to taxi and take off. Grassy airstrips scarred by ruts have disappeared under smooth streets lined with houses and trees. The acreage’s only link to aviation is several hundred feet overhead, where airliners descend toward landings at Midway Airport.