Sisters of the Skies: Honoring Black women in aviation

Feb 12, 2020

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As an #avgeek, I’m always in awe of pilots.

I think about how they keep the skies safe and provide comfortable flying experiences for passengers every day, while dealing with delays, rude passengers and sometimes low pay. I think about their critical responsibilities as they hurtle passengers through the skies at hundreds of miles an hour.

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At an elementary school career workshop, I was asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. I said I wanted to be an astronaut or a commercial pilot, though I heard a few times that women couldn’t be pilots — with the subtext that little black girls from a small Virginia city couldn’t fly planes or into space.

I didn’t reach that goal (though getting to travel for a living is close enough!), but I’ve been thinking about the ones who have.

As TPG celebrates Black History Month, we’re honoring African-American changemakers in the travel and aviation industry. I think about the lack of pilots who look like me, and I’m surprised — pleasantly — when I’m in an airport and see one of the few African-American women pilots.

“We can start from my walks through the airport,” American Airlines pilot Beth Powell told Essence in 2019. “Passengers do a double-take when they see me. Even some gate agents sometimes confuse me for a flight attendant [while I’m standing there] in full pilot uniform.”

Related: These influencers are using social media to encourage people of color to travel

An organization founded by black women in aviation hopes to address these disparities. Sisters of The Skies, a nonprofit international aviation organization, works to provide minority women in the industry with scholarships, mentorship and emotional support as they navigate their careers.

According to Sisters of the Skies, “Professional black women pilots represent less than one-half of 1% of the total professional pilot career field.” Only 150 black women pilots in the U.S. hold airline transport pilot, commercial, military or certified flight Instructor licenses. The numbers aren’t great for female pilots in general, either. According to Women In Aviation International, just over six percent of commercial pilots are women.

Related: Celebrating African-American aviation contributions – one Tweet at a time

Sisters of The Skies was founded by a Coast Guard pilot and several commercial pilots, but it’s not just an organization for black women in the aviation industry. The organization also participates in outreach programs for students in elementary, middle and high schools interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. This outreach targets explicitly girls of color who otherwise wouldn’t have access to mentoring from aviation professionals.

Capt. Angie Wilkerson-Hébert, a United Airlines pilot, told television station KTVU in Oakland, California, how important it is to give back. Wilkerson-Hébert is a history-maker herself — she’s the first black woman to fly the Boeing 777 in the U.S.

“When I was growing up,” Wilkerson-Hébert said, “there was no one for us to follow. No one of color, no females, and I was fourth African-American at United hired as a pilot. So for us [to] give back to these young girls, it’s huge for me because I know they’re looking up to us. It would have been great for me to look up to someone, but that’s OK now because now we’re giving back.”

“It’s an incredible feeling just to be in charge of these young girls, mentoring them to do what they want to do professionally.”

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