Photo courtesy United
Carole Cary-Hopson has been a pilot with United for nearly two years.
Nearly a century after Bessie Coleman first took to the skies, black women remain a rarity in the cockpit.
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“If you surrender to the air, you can ride it.”
—Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon
The earliest story I was told of black people flying came from the mouth of a griot, an oral storyteller, who traveled around to black churches in Milwaukee decades ago when I was a little girl. That black people, brought here from Africa, forced to work in fields, carried knowledge and the ability to fly.
In his retelling, enslaved Africans who took matters of their freedom into their own hands felt more than familiar to me. I knew this story, but I didn’t know how. Perhaps I had always known it, in my bones, in my blood. It seemed so fantastic, but there we were, singing and dreaming of flight, real and imagined. Folklorist Virginia Hamilton even recorded the story and published it in her book, The People Could Fly, writing, “Say that long ago in Africa, some of the people knew magic. And they would walk up on the air like climbin’ up on a gate. And they flew like blackbirds over the fields. Black, shiny wings flappin’ against the blue up there.”
This is how I like to imagine that the world’s first black woman aviator, Bessie Coleman, might too have heard this story. I like to imagine that her dreams as a little girl in Texas in the early 1900s consisted of “black shiny wings flappin’ against the blue up there”; that she sang spirituals on those Sundays between the school year and the wretchedness of cotton-picking season. I’ll fly away, oh Lord/I’ll fly away or I got wings/You got wings/All God’s children got wings. That these spirituals foretold the reality of black flight for her long before a pithy remark by her older brother inspired her to take to the skies in a 27-foot Nieuport across the fields of the Somme.
It is this story that always and immediately exists in my mind when I think of Coleman, as if she was a direct descendant of this myth. And since I first heard of Coleman, I’ve been on the lookout for black women pilots: on planes and panels, and in concourses and airport terminals.
But today, fewer than 1 percent of airline pilots in the United States are black women, according to Sisters of the Skies (SOS), a professional organization of black women pilots founded in 2018. (Women make up around 7 percent of U.S. pilots, according to the FAA.) In total, fewer than 150 black women hold any type of pilot license in the United States, according to SOS. And while black women in 2020 don’t face the same barriers Coleman did in 1920s America, the persistent underrepresentation of black women pilots puzzles. Where is everyone?
Carole Cary-Hopson was first introduced to Coleman’s story while attending the Women in Aviation Convention in Denver in 1998, when she met a woman selling mugs with Coleman’s photo and a brief biography of the aviation pioneer. Cary-Hopson stopped in the middle of the convention floor, gobsmacked by the discovery of a woman she never knew.
“As I read it, I said, ‘How could I be 34 years old and not even know who Bessie Coleman is? How could I not know that?’” Cary-Hopson tells me. Coleman’s story was a revelation for Cary-Hopson, who was in the early stages of becoming a pilot. In Coleman’s perseverance despite racial barriers (being born at a time when no one wanted to train black women to become pilots) and despite debilitating injury (breaking her leg and fracturing her ribs, only to get back in the pilot’s seat)—Cary-Hopson found inspiration, so much so that she has even written a yet-to-be-published novel based on Coleman’s life.
Cary-Hopson’s own path to becoming a pilot was circuitous. After earning a degree from Columbia University’s journalism school, she worked as a beat reporter and stringer before moving into communications for the National Hockey League. But all that time, she harbored a dream to fly: one that had begun years ago, with childhood visits to her grandmother’s home in South Jersey, smack on the flight path to Philadelphia International Airport.
“As a little girl, I’d lie on the ground and just watch the airplanes. I could call out what color they were. I could look at them as they crossed over,” she says. Those early reveries stoked a passion for flight, but remained private until she shared that dream with an old college classmate who later became her husband. While she was an executive for Foot Locker, he surprised her with certificates for private lessons at Teterboro airport in New Jersey.
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“When the wheels left the ground, it was so orgasmic,” she says. “It took me an hour to fly down to the Hudson and back, and [by the] time we got back that was it,” she said. Cary-Hopson left her corporate job and committed herself full-time to becoming a pilot in the fall of 2000. In less than a year, not unlike many of her male peers, she was a certified flight instructor for multi-engine and single-engine planes. Deciding to start a family, and the September 11 attacks—which upended the airline industry—slowed the process of commercial pilot certification for Cary-Hopson, but she continued to train and fly, while juggling the demands of motherhood, raising two boys with her husband.
Cary-Hopson, now 55, has been a pilot with United Airlines for just under two years and has talked to more than 2,500 young people nationwide about aviation since 2017. Her personal goal is to reach out to 1,000 students a year, extolling the professional opportunities available to them in the field. “I like to call it my evangelical talk about flying,” she says. “Women should be pilots and mechanics. Girls should think about it [the field] and grow into it and become willing to do this.”
Coleman arrived in Chicago in 1915, during the first wave of the Great Migration. And in that crucible of burgeoning black possibility, Coleman, working as a manicurist, was exposed to the travel tales of her brothers and other black men who fought in the Great War. But, said Coleman’s brother: “[Black] women ain’t never goin’ to fly, not like those women I saw in France.”
“That’s it! You just called it for me,” Coleman reportedly said.
Coleman then wrote to every flight school in the country to secure lessons. She was denied by all. After seeking the counsel and support of Robert Abbott, the founder of the Chicago Defender, Coleman decided to go to France’s famed École d’Aviation des Frères Caudron to learn to fly. In November 1920, she left.
Coleman returned from France in 1921 with an international pilot’s license, a decade before commercial air travel would become commonplace. She needed money to train and space to fly, but aviation was not a profitable profession. For many, it was mere sport and spectacle, with crowds paying for airshows to witness daredevil feats. Airshows or barnstorming—flying circuses—hired men as pilots. Women, if they were employed at all, were wing walkers or parachutists. Most of these outfits did not hire African Americans, period.
Today, costs to train and become certified are one of the greatest hindrances to a career in commercial aviation. Most major passenger carriers require college degrees. Nationwide, tuition costs for degrees in aviation at private colleges can cost upwards of $100,000, exclusive of fees for various FAA certifications, which drive costs even higher. And if time is money, then becoming a pilot only gets more expensive: These costs don’t always factor in the required FAA flight time of 1,500 hours for employment as a commercial pilot.
Short of a military career, the most common method for notching those hours is through flight instruction, which has become the most popular way to accrue flight time. But starting salaries for flight instructors remain low, around $30,000 annually. Combined with the costs of flight education and training, student loans are likely, and it can take years for fledgling pilots to alleviate the burden of loan debt. While the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the median salary for airline and commercial pilots as $115,670, salaries for regional airlines remain low for new pilots—the lowest 10 percent earn $44,640. It’s often at least a decade before candidates earn pilot ranking competitive enough to be considered eligible for employment with commercial airlines.
Compounding these costs is the verifiable invisibility of African American professionals in aviation to black communities writ large. And African American women are egregiously underrepresented when stacked against national demographic data: As of 2019, African Americans make up 13.9 percent of the U.S. population, and 50 percent within that total are women. The percentage of licensed black women pilots, then, is infinitesimal.
United currently has 17 black female pilots flying today, but only two of them are captains, the highest rank: Theresa Claiborne, who became the nation’s first black female Air Force pilot in 1982 and is now president of SOS, and M’Lis Ward, who became the first African American woman captain of a major airline in 2000.
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At Delta, the story isn’t much different. In 1997, Stephanie Johnson became Northwest Airlines’ first African American female pilot. (At that time, she says, there were only 12 African American women airline pilots in the country at major airlines, and she knew all of their names.) Since Delta’s acquisition of Northwest, she is the first African American woman to become a captain for the airline. Johnson, who graduated from Kent State University in 1991, is also the first and only black woman to graduate from its aerospace technology program.
Johnson charts her early love of flying to early exposure: As a teenager living in Cleveland, she convinced her physics teacher—who was a licensed pilot—to take her and some friends for a ride in a Piper Cherokee. They each pitched in five dollars for gas.
For Johnson, the most significant challenge of ascending in the field was confronting the stigma of assumptions. “There’s not the expectation you’re going to succeed,” she said in a 2019 interview.
Yet in conversation, Johnson emphasized that key for aspiring black female pilots is “overcoming the lack of encouragement” they may face as they encounter instructors or colleagues who doubt their ambition or competency simply because they are black and women—and to seek support from those who are willing to give it.
“None of us are perfect. No white male pilot is perfect. No white female pilot is perfect, no black male [pilot], nobody’s perfect,” says Johnson, noting that these struggles of belonging and pressures of perfection are part of the process. “You can overcome that by finding a support group, [and by] connecting with other black pilots.”
For communities who may not fly often, that outreach and activism from black aerospace professionals and pilots can combat the unknown and can help show black communities that being a pilot is a real possibility.
“A parent comes up to me and she says, ‘You a pilot?’ and I said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ And she said, ‘They let us be pilots?’ And that really was something,” says Johnson. “The parents don’t know what the opportunities are, because they didn’t grow up with opportunities. And so it was even more important, that ‘OK, this has just got to be my life because I can open people’s eyes.’”
In the past few decades, there has been slow progress in education, outreach, and mentorship. SOS, in partnership with American Airlines, sponsors the day-long event “Girls Rock Wings,” to promote aviation and STEM careers, connecting girls 10–18 with member pilots. The Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP), formed in 1976, has a robust scholarship program and now counts chapters at 14 colleges including HBCUs; in 2005, they opened five “Centers of Excellence” in Memphis, Louisville, Atlanta, Miami, and Houston to encourage youth toward aerospace careers. OBAP also works with United to run Aerospace Career Education (ACE) camps during the summers, and for more than 20 years, they've partnered with Delta to host the “Dream Flight” initiative, which ferries 150 teens from Atlanta to Pensacola, Florida’s Naval air base, to expose them to aviation.
“We know how impactful representation is: If students can see themselves reflected in an aviation uniform or behind a pilot hat, they can begin to picture themselves in the role and know that they too can pursue their most ambitious dreams,” said Keyra Lynn Johnson, Delta’s chief officer of Diversity & Inclusion, in a statement last year.
Alaska Airlines, which has four black female pilots, pledged in February 2019 to quadruple its African American women pilots by 2025—the only airline to publicly vow to increase this demographic. Alaska says it will honor that promise by developing programs for mentorships and training and by connecting with kids to generate excitement about careers in aviation.
And while these efforts do not immediately address the inequity in representation, they are crucial hands-on experiences for young black girls. Coupled with mentorship, they alight the dream of flight, but more so, help make that dream a tangible reality.
In conversation, Cary-Hopson underscored the importance of mentorship—it’s all about paying it forward, and paying it forward again, she says. As part of her dream of opening a school, one of her own mentors—Captain Albert Glenn, former president for OBAP—lent her his plane and airstrip outside Memphis for three weeks to teach three black girls the basics of flying. She is now intent on working with OBAP to train 100 more black girls to take off, touch down, and everything in between.
In many respects, Coleman’s life has a mythic cast, like those Africans who flew from plantation fields to freedom. A daughter of a sharecropper who became the first black woman pilot in the whole world, she had no model, so she made one up.
I like to think that all black girls dream of flying. That this new generation of black women pilots buoyed by Coleman’s enduring spirit will support the next generation to soar to even higher heights; that those hymns and those folk stories I heard as a child—of black people with the mystical ability to fly—held a truthful wisdom in them. That they inculcated the dream of flight and the persistence to manifest those dreams in the waking world.
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