She was the first Black woman to fly in the US Air Force. Now this trailblazing pilot is making her final flight

Of course this story is close to my heart and I offer her the poem "High Flight"


By Tamara Hardingham-Gill, CNN
7 minute read
Updated 7:48 PM EDT, Thu May 23, 2024

Captain Theresa Claiborne -- the first Black woman to fly in the US Air Force -- is retiring from United Airlines

Captain Theresa Claiborne -- the first Black woman to fly in the US Air Force -- is retiring from United Airlines
United Airlines

CNN —
She’s been flying planes, both military and commercial, for about 43 years, breaking down barrier after barrier along the way.

But on May 23, Captain Theresa Claiborne will land her “final flight” at Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey after traveling from Lisbon, Portugal, with her friends and family in tow.

“I’ve had a great career,” Claiborne told CNN Travel via Zoom shortly before setting off for Lisbon. “And it’s time for me to park the brakes for the final time on a big airplane.”

Retirement flight​

Claiborne has been flying planes, both military and commercial, for about 43 years.

Claiborne has been flying planes, both military and commercial, for about 43 years.
Courtesy UA

While she’s looking forward to “closing that one chapter and starting another,” Claiborne can’t help but get a “little teary” when she thinks of the “wide-eyed” children who often marvel at her as she strides through an airport in her pilot uniform.

“After this, walking through the airport, I won’t have a uniform on,” Claiborne says. “People will just look at me like I’m just a passenger like everyone else, that’ll be a little different… I’m hoping that I can still make an impact on the industry.

“To still impart that knowledge on young people, and particularly young black women, that they can do this.”

https://www.cnn.com/travel/lynn-rippelmeyer-first-female-747-pilot
Becoming a pilot was something Claiborne, originally from Virginia, could never have imagined for herself as a young girl. She was about seven years old when she took her first flight – an international jaunt to Turkey.

“My father was military,” she says. “So I grew up really all over the world… I’d been on big airplanes before but never dreamt of flying one.”

That all changed when Claiborne joined the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC) during college and was given the opportunity to fly in a T-37, a twin-engine jet trainer.

“Once I got that first taste of being in the air and being in command of the airplane, I was like, ‘Yeah, this is what I’m going to do,” says Claiborne, who was about 20 at the time.

Sink or swim
I’ve had a great career,” says Claiborne. And it’s time for me to park the brakes for the final time on a big airplane.”

"I’ve had a great career,” says Claiborne. "And it’s time for me to park the brakes for the final time on a big airplane.”
Courtesy UA

While she was keen to apply for undergraduate pilot training, Claiborne explains that the US Air Force was only training 10 women a year at the time and “had already selected the women for my graduating class.”

However, this number soon increased, and Claiborne jumped at the opportunity to earn her pilot wings.

Around six months after graduating from California State University in Sacramento she began pilot training.

“It’s sink or swim… Either you make it or you don’t,” she says, pointing out that she found it particularly difficult at first as “she didn’t have a strong math background.”

“I just beared down and made sure that I made it, because that’s the kind of personality I have.”

In 1981, Claiborne was commissioned as a second lieutenant and went on to become the first Black woman to fly in the US Air Force the following year.

“I did not know until a few weeks before I graduated that that was the case,” she says of the “mind boggling” title.
“And I often say that I’m really, really happy that I didn’t know. I was 22 years old…”

During her years in the US Air Force, Caliborne became the first Black woman to serve as a command pilot and instructor for the KC-135, a mid-air refueling jet.

New heights​

Claiborne with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, former associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.

Claiborne with Ruth Bader Ginsburg, former associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.
Courtesy UA

In 1990, she joined United Airlines as a flight officer. At five feet, two inches, Claiborne was two inches shorter than the height required to fly commercial aircraft at other airlines at the time, but she would go on to be a United Airlines captain.

When asked about the transition to flying commercial planes, Claiborne stresses that “a pilot is a pilot.”

“You’re in different type organizations, but you’re still a pilot,” she adds.

Claiborne says she has always prided herself on being the best pilot that she could possibly be, stressing that a big part of this is ensuring that her passengers enjoy the flying experience.

“Being good means that I’m communicating with my passengers at all times,” she says. “They know what’s going on. That I keep them safe in every way.

“Obviously, the landing is all-important. I’ve got two more to do really well on.”
https://www.cnn.com/travel/father-daughter-pilots-recreated-photo-klm
“I still get chills when I think about the fact that I was the first, and had I not graduated, the statement that that may have made.”
Claiborne has chosen Newark, New Jersey, to Lisbon (outbound and inbound) as her swan song, with her mother, along with many of her closest friends and family, coming along for the ride.

“I won’t lie, I wanted to go to Paris,” she admits, explaining that she was keen to pay tribute to Bessie Coleman, who moved to Paris to attend aviation school and went on to become the first African-American woman to earn a pilot’s license.

“I wanted to recreate the whole Bessie Coleman thing. But Paris out of Newark is on a different airframe.”

She eventually decided on the Portuguese capital, largely because there’s a two-day layover on the service, which means that she’ll be able to spend some time enjoying the city with her loved ones.

“Generally, we’re there [at the outbound destination] for 24 hours. So you land, you nap, you find something to eat, you nap again, and you leave.

“So this way, with the Lisbon trip, we have an opportunity to enjoy each other.

“And my mother’s made many, many, many sacrifices for me. So this is an opportunity for her to really enjoy herself.”

Increasing diversity​

Claiborne is committed to increasing pilot diversity and will continue to mentor young women.

Claiborne is committed to increasing pilot diversity and will continue to mentor young women.
Courtesy UA

Once she’s landed the United Airlines 787 Dreamliner in Newark, Claiborne will receive the water cannon salute – a mark of respect that sees two fire engines use their water cannons to create a huge arc over a plane.

“That’s something that retiring people look forward to,” she says. “It’s pretty special.”

“I’m a pretty emotional person,” she says. “I’m hoping I don’t cry. But I probably will have a few tears.
“Because after all, it’ll be the last time that I’m piloting a big airplane like that.”

Claiborne has spent her entire commercial flying career at United Airlines and says she feels blessed to have been able to work for the American airline for so long.

“It’s a good company,” she says. “We have the most women pilots of any major United States carrier, and I believe we still have the most Black women.”

In the US, 93.7% of professional pilots are White and 92.5% of professional pilots are male, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
It’s estimated that there are less than 150 Black women pilots in the US, and Claiborne feels a huge responsibility as one of them.
Captain Theresa Claiborne.

Captain Theresa Claiborne.
Courtesy UA

“I do carry the weight on my shoulders of making sure that I continue to perform in a way that other people who look like me get a fair chance,” she says, before recounting how crew members would sometimes assume her co-pilot was the captain earlier in her career.

“After they’d finished talking, I’d turn around and look and go, ‘What you got for me?’” she recalls.

Claiborne is currently the president of Sisters of the Skies, a not-for-profit organization focused on helping increase the number of Black women pilots, which awards scholarships to “women who are able, and who want to be pilots.”

Claiborne admits that watching the curtain close on her hugely successful career will be a “bittersweet” experience.

The biggest barrier to flying an airplane is the money,” she explains, referring to the cost of pilot training. “So that’s what we do.”
Claiborne will be stepping down as president of the organization after seven years, but she plans to continue mentoring young girls long into her retirement, as well as write “a couple books.”

“There are a group of women coming up behind me who are members of our organization that are carrying on that legacy,” she adds.
While this may be the end of her commercial flying career, Claiborne isn’t necessarily saying “goodbye” to piloting forever, and would love to fly a World War II aircraft one day.

“I’ve had friends that said, ‘Come on. I’ll take you up.’” she says. “So I could see myself doing that. That’s on my bucket list too.
“I would absolutely love to fly in a Red Tail, an airplane that the Tuskegee Airmen flew. That would probably be my number one.
“If somebody is offering a ride in the backseat of a Thunderbird, I might as well put that out there. I haven’t done everything…”

https://www.cnn.com/travel/theresa-claiborne-first-black-woman-air-force-pilot-retirement/index.html

HIGH FLIGHT
Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I've climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds - done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of - wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence.
Hov'ring there I've chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue
I've topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, nor even eagle flew
And, while with silent lifting mind I've trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space
Put out my hand and touched the face of God.
-John G. Magee, Jr.​
This poem was written by Pilot Officer John Gillespie Magee, Jr., who was 18 years old and studying in the United States when the Second World War began. Trained in Canada through the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan, he was later sent to England. After being assigned to a high-altitude training flight in a Spitfire, he wrote this poem to his mother. He died during a training flight in 1941
I got my wings as a pilot in 1980. I never saw a black person wanting to be a pilot. She proved with her handicaps of being 5-2 things will work out if you just try.
 
I wonder how many White pilots have been promoted even though they didn't have perfect resumes? Probably too many to count. White privledge.
Airplanes do not recognize color. I became a pilot because I was an exceptional pilot. My color was not vital at all. There is no such thing as white privilege. That is her lesson.

How good was I? I chatted 3 years ago at age 83 with my former instructor pilot and he knew me immediately. It was fun chatting with a pilot I had not chatted with since 1980 when due to his instruction I became a pilot.
 
Airplanes do not recognize color. I became a pilot because I was an exceptional pilot. My color was not vital at all. There is no such thing as white privilege. That is her lesson.
Why do you think you never saw a Black person wanting to be a pilot in 1980? Airplanes don't recognize color, but people sure do. White privledge has been a fact of life in the USA since the first African slave stepped off the boat.
 
Why do you think you never saw a Black person wanting to be a pilot in 1980? Airplanes don't recognize color, but people sure do. White privledge has been a fact of life in the USA since the first African slave stepped off the boat.
Frankly I have an opinion on this. Because of my pilot training. I believe if you polled a million blacks, men and women, not many of them want to be pilots. There were no restrictions at all in 1980 when this woman got her wings. Even being 5-2 did not stop her. I see the reason for that restriction. But I imagine for short people, there are engineers willing to ensure they can reach the rudder pedals.
 
Ok, why does her being black matter?

I thought skin color doesn't matter, we shouldnt look at skin color, were all equals in the eyes of the Lord, we should be color blind, and so on. Yet everytime a black person does something it's celebrated and their skin color brought out on full display and their life reduced to race.

I'm not diminishing her accomplishments, but who gives a shit? What's next celebration for the first black woman to drive a car? Use a spoon? Eat a hotdog? Go to a movie and not annoy anyone the whole time?

If blacks want to be equal then they need to act like it, all this kind of nonsense does is single them out and praise them over all the other skin colors.

You have to decide. Do you want equality or do you want to divide? Because this post says you want division.
You need to get rid if that cognitive dissonance. Stop pretending that whites have not excuded blacks from things. Life reduced to race? It's amazing to see these comments from whites whose existence is what it is now is because of what racism has allowed whites to do BASED ON RACE!
 
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You need to get rid if that cognitive dissonance. Stop pretending that whites have not excuded blacks from things. Life reduced to race? It's amazing to see these comments from whites whose existence is what it is now is because of what racism has allowed whites to do BASED ON RACE!
You are really a trailblazer in whining about blacks and my god you think Whites are really in charge.
 
People like Tipsycat(or EvilCatbreath), they don't question the qualifications of whites. They just automatically beieve they are qualified whether they are or not.
 
So according to you, flying is allegedly MORE dangerous TODAY DUE SPECIFICALLY TO Captain Claiborne retiring from an obviously successful 34 year career with American Airlines, AFTER having gotten her start in flying by being the first African American FEMALE to fly for the US Air Force?

Aren't you a retired attorney claiming cause & effect? So where is the damn effect?
Well flying is now less diverse.
 
You are really a trailblazer in whining about blacks and my god you think Whites are really in charge.
Stop responding to that poster
He is an older white male who has pulled off this impersonation BS on several other boards. When he comes clean maybe he'll be worth responding to.
 
Stop responding to that poster
He is an older white male who has pulled off this impersonation BS on several other boards. When he comes clean maybe he'll be worth responding to.
On a forum I posted on in the 1990s, I ran across a White who pretended to be black. We thought for a time we might be relatives. Anyway he told me by mail he was a white trying to get blacks to come out. This guy talks very different. He whines like he really is black. But I won't talk to him again unless he is honest here.
 
Stop responding to that poster
He is an older white male who has pulled off this impersonation BS on several other boards. When he comes clean maybe he'll be worth responding to.
You really need to stop believing that moron. I'm a black man 63 years of age. And I'm not asking you to reveal your identity so don't ask me to reveal mine. I haven't impersonated anyone. The motherfucker who made that claim can't produce one board where I did what he said. His punk ass came in here accusing me of being several posters here at the same time while he was the one doing that very thing.
 
You are really a trailblazer in whining about blacks and my god you think Whites are really in charge.
The people in this forum whining are whites. Look at this thread for example. We have whites in here crying because the OP dared to mention that the lady was the first black female pilot. Stating the truth is not whiniing. If you can't handle the truth, that's yur probem.
 
I wonder how many White pilots have been promoted even though they didn't have perfect resumes? Probably too many to count. White privledge.
In peacetime it's damned hard to get promoted over Captain (0-3) without a perfect resume. Resumes usually sound like the officer only avoids walking on water because he doesn't want the soles of his shoes to get wet. A single evaluation less than that will scuttle a peacetime career. O-1 to O-3 is pretty much just determined by time in rank unless an officer really screws up.
 
Frankly I have an opinion on this. Because of my pilot training. I believe if you polled a million blacks, men and women, not many of them want to be pilots. There were no restrictions at all in 1980 when this woman got her wings. Even being 5-2 did not stop her. I see the reason for that restriction. But I imagine for short people, there are engineers willing to ensure they can reach the rudder pedals.
Very few people want to be pilots, even fewer continue after finding out the requirements to get and keep even a civilian license, let alone a military one. You have to be in near perfect health among other things.
 
On a forum I posted on in the 1990s, I ran across a White who pretended to be black. We thought for a time we might be relatives. Anyway he told me by mail he was a white trying to get blacks to come out. This guy talks very different. He whines like he really is black. But I won't talk to him again unless he is honest here.
Fuck you. I am black and I don't have anything to prove to anyone here. Am I asking you to prove what you are? Am I harassing people based on some shit some idiot came in here saying? And why in the fuck do you guys think I can't be back? Do you guys actually believe blacks don't talk about whites and how we get treated? Do you think we are all just happy with things? Maybe you guys should sit down and try having a real honest talk wth blacks about racism in America.

Look to your left and you see my picture. That's me, not a gif, not a jpg, not a stock photo. I am a black man wearing a black shirt, with a floppy hat and sunglasses. So if you guys want to think that's a fake because some dumbfuck came in here making claims he did not prove, then that's your probem. However, I will not continue to be harrassed about my identity. I will report each one of you who does this from this point on to the moderators. Doxxing is against the rules here, so us harrassment.
 
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Very few people want to be pilots, even fewer continue after finding out the requirements to get and keep even a civilian license, let alone a military one. You have to be in near perfect health among other things.
The major hindrance to keeping the license active is the cost. It was 1980 that I got my license as a pilot and it was due to my mother dying. It was a motivator until I got the license.
 
Fuck you. I am black and I don't have anything to prove to anyone here. Am I asking you to prove what you are? Am I harassing people based on some shit some idiot came in here saying? And why in the fuck do you guys think I can't be back? Do you guys actually believe blacks don't talk about whites and how we get treated? Do you think we are all just happy with things? Maybe you guys should sit down and try having a real honest talk wth blacks about racism in America.

Look to your left and you see my picture. That's me, not a gif, not a jpg, not a stock photo. I am a black man wearing a black shirt, with a floppy hat and sunglasses. So if you guys want to think that's a fake because some dumbfuck came in here making claims he did not prove, then that's your probem. However, I will not continue to be harrassed about my identity. I will report each one of you who does this from this point on to the moderators. Doxxing is against the rules herre, so us harrassment.
"He whines like he really is black." Can you read English?
 
You sound like an idiot that listens to right wing radio all day and right-wing TV at night.
You listen to it. If you did not, you would not know what is said on right wing (what does that mean?) TV.
 

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