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
That is wonderful and goes to show the incredibly diverse and amazing history of America. While this woman was succeeding in America and other countries of the world, people were struggling in slavery and living in abject poverty.

All through American history we were perhaps the most liberal and great country and all of the world.

Based on our diversity and liberal history, people should always stand for the flag in this country. They should respect our countrys history.
 
It doesn’t look all that expensive, a physical every few ( five years before forty, and two years after forty). A check ride every two years. A commercial license is more expensive, but all the costs are tax deductible as a business expense.
Fuel is a major expense. This is after the cost of the instructor, the charge for the airplane per hour plus the fuel costs. After one has the license, those charges you talk of kick in because they kicked in to get the license to begin with. Commercial means more instructor, more plane hours and more fuel costs.
Boise where Live now is cheaper than Hayward, CA where I used to rent from.

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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.
I got my wings even earlier. There was one black kid I knew in Van Nuys. He worked as a fuel driver for the FBO at the airport, and used his earnings to buy his flight lessons.

He was smart, focused and after earning his Private Pilots license he got his CFI and Instrument ratings. He also volunteered to do check flights for the A&Ps so he could build up his hours.

He was also a member of the Civil Air Patrol squadron at the airport.

I wish I could remember his name, this was back in the 1980's, I do know that the FBO paid for him to get his ATP rating, which is a pretty huge deal because those are very expensive.

Anyway, the point is, even back then the aviation community went out of their way to make it possible for a poor black kid to become a pilot because he absolutely lived and breathed aviation.

Yes, there was a time, especially in the military when racism was a problem.

But that was a long time ago. If a black or brown, or green kid wants to fly, the aviation world will see to it that they get the chance to realize their dream.
 
I got my wings even earlier. There was one black kid I knew in Van Nuys. He worked as a fuel driver for the FBO at the airport, and used his earnings to buy his flight lessons.

He was smart, focused and after earning his Private Pilots license he got his CFI and Instrument ratings. He also volunteered to do check flights for the A&Ps so he could build up his hours.

He was also a member of the Civil Air Patrol squadron at the airport.

I wish I could remember his name, this was back in the 1980's, I do know that the FBO paid for him to get his ATP rating, which is a pretty huge deal because those are very expensive.

Anyway, the point is, even back then the aviation community went out of their way to make it possible for a poor black kid to become a pilot because he absolutely lived and breathed aviation.

Yes, there was a time, especially in the military when racism was a problem.

But that was a long time ago. If a black or brown, or green kid wants to fly, the aviation world will see to it that they get the chance to realize their dream.
Blacks can become pilots if they have the money to pay for instruction, fuel costs and airplane rentals. Take Justice Thomas for instance. If he has a child, that child can afford lessons.
 
Hidden figures with the mercury program in the early 1960's and a space capsule stuck on the space station today.
 
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.
I got my training at the Hayward, CA airport and none that I saw showed up. Why bring up the past when Democrats had jim crow laws and deeds had restrictions to hold up blacks?
Blacks must have made excellent slaves given this country has had 12 presidents owning them.
 
Blacks can become pilots if they have the money to pay for instruction, fuel costs and airplane rentals. Take Justice Thomas for instance. If he has a child, that child can afford lessons.
The aviation community will even make it possible for black kids who DON'T have the money to do so. So long as they are motivated, and focused it will happen.
 
The aviation community will even make it possible for black kids who DON'T have the money to do so. So long as they are motivated, and focused it will happen.
I got my start by being in the Civil Air Patrol. When I was learning to fly and get licensed, insurance for aircraft was a major problem. Rates around here are high.
 
The aviation community will even make it possible for black kids who DON'T have the money to do so. So long as they are motivated, and focused it will happen.
I flew to Fresno one time to meet a client. Anthony played for the Redskins and is black. He was too scared to fly with me he said. I invited him but he just did not want to. And he had to fly in his job as a pro football player. He signed his papers to close escrow on the home I was his agent on. Also thanks to his playing, I talked to his pro football agent one time. At the time of the purchase, he was engaged in negotiating a raise. Which he got. But the lender I had working the loan told me this hinted he could lose his job by the Redskins wording on the Job forms. I called the Redskins and they agreed to change the wording so Anthony got his home.
 
I got my start by being in the Civil Air Patrol. When I was learning to fly and get licensed, insurance for aircraft was a major problem. Rates around here are high.
They are high everywhere. So long as they are motivated the community will make it possible.
 
They are high everywhere. So long as they are motivated the community will make it possible.
As for Blacks becoming pilots, it seems that the Democrats allege they are not able to afford much of anything. I would suggest to Democrats they set aside funds to do this for blacks and stop asking for the Government to do it.
 
Ever rule in the book was bent, erased and ignored so she could be an affirmative action pilot.

Which is why flying has gotten more dangerous.
Flying is not dangerous. There are pilots who drink and fly and those are dangerous. But Airline pilots are banned from drinking and flying until sober for hours and hours.
 
I flew to Fresno one time to meet a client. Anthony played for the Redskins and is black. He was too scared to fly with me he said. I invited him but he just did not want to. And he had to fly in his job as a pro football player. He signed his papers to close escrow on the home I was his agent on. Also thanks to his playing, I talked to his pro football agent one time. At the time of the purchase, he was engaged in negotiating a raise. Which he got. But the lender I had working the loan told me this hinted he could lose his job by the Redskins wording on the Job forms. I called the Redskins and they agreed to change the wording so Anthony got his home.

Flying is not dangerous. There are pilots who drink and fly and those are dangerous. But Airline pilots are banned from drinking and flying until sober for hours and hours.
Flying is inherently dangerous. Anytime you leave the ground in defiance of gravity there is danger.

The training we do as pilots is to ensure that if one of the myriad things that can go wrong, does, we are able to respond in an appropriate manner.

As Hoover famously said about crashing a plane, "keep flying it right up to the place of the crash!"
 
Flying is inherently dangerous. Anytime you leave the ground in defiance of gravity there is danger.

The training we do as pilots is to ensure that if one of the myriad things that can go wrong, does, we are able to respond in an appropriate manner.

As Hoover famously said about crashing a plane, "keep flying it right up to the place of the crash!"
It pains me for a pilot to call what we do is dangerous. The public needs to learn why airplanes fly and don't drop from the sky. We harm the public by telling them it is dangerous.
Take working around heavy cranes as I once did for a living. That is really dangerous and men still work after losing an arm. You are correct that the instructors preach safe flying.
 
It pains me for a pilot to call what we do is dangerous. The public needs to learn why airplanes fly and don't drop from the sky. We harm the public by telling them it is dangerous.
Take working around heavy cranes as I once did for a living. That is really dangerous and men still work after losing an arm. You are correct that the instructors preach safe flying.
I hate to break it to ya, but it is. The public simply needs to not be lied to.

I have slightly more than 11,000 hours in all types, in that time I have had 7 instances where the pucker factor reached level 8. Three were self induced, and four were exterior induced.

My training allowed me to prevail in all of them. The worst was being vectored in to LAX several minutes after a 747 had landed.

The problem was a cross wind kept one of the wingtip vortices over the center of the runway, so as I passed through 100 feet on final I suddenly found myself one third of the way through a barrel roll.

Two choices, try to fight back, or finish the roll. I finished the roll and touched down a second afterwards.

Needless to say the tower gave me a call! After hearing what happened they were apologetic as hell.

Had I tried to recover I might have made it, but I doubt it. I was flying a Cub and the roll rate simply wasn't good enough. The rotational energy was already in play and I would have had to fight that first.

The self induced always involved weather. Every time I took off into minimums and thankfully never ran into a icing or other weather induced problem.

But that was always a possibility.

So yes, flying is inherently dangerous because you are defying gravity. Gravity doesn't like that so is trying everything in the playback to bring you back to Earth.

Most crashes are pilot error. There is no doubt about that. But an error that in a car will get you towed, in an airplane will get you killed.
 
I hate to break it to ya, but it is. The public simply needs to not be lied to.

I have slightly more than 11,000 hours in all types, in that time I have had 7 instances where the pucker factor reached level 8. Three were self induced, and four were exterior induced.

My training allowed me to prevail in all of them. The worst was being vectored in to LAX several minutes after a 747 had landed.

The problem was a cross wind kept one of the wingtip vortices over the center of the runway, so as I passed through 100 feet on final I suddenly found myself one third of the way through a barrel roll.

Two choices, try to fight back, or finish the roll. I finished the roll and touched down a second afterwards.

Needless to say the tower gave me a call! After hearing what happened they were apologetic as hell.

Had I tried to recover I might have made it, but I doubt it. I was flying a Cub and the roll rate simply wasn't good enough. The rotational energy was already in play and I would have had to fight that first.

The self induced always involved weather. Every time I took off into minimums and thankfully never ran into a icing or other weather induced problem.

But that was always a possibility.

So yes, flying is inherently dangerous because you are defying gravity. Gravity doesn't like that so is trying everything in the playback to bring you back to Earth.

Most crashes are pilot error. There is no doubt about that. But an error that in a car will get you towed, in an airplane will get you killed.
You make some great points. Now, pick up a passenger and lecture them how much danger you will put them in. Tell them the barrel roll story and see if they jump out of the plane.
 
You make some great points. Now, pick up a passenger and lecture them how much danger you will put them in. Tell them the barrel roll story and see if they jump out of the plane.
I have only flown a few people who weren't friends. One of my failings to be honest. I donate to our CAP squadron, and I support the 99's with their outreach efforts.

But I have little patience for intro flights of my own. However, I truly appreciate and honor those who do.
 

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