The first Black woman to become a US Air Force pilot takes her final flight as commercial pilot

Theresa Claiborne, first Black pilot in the U.S. Air Force, Black pilots, Black women pilots, Tuskegee Airmen, Bessie Coleman,
Theresa Claiborne just retired after 34 years as a commercial pilot for United Airlines. (Photo: Screenshot. AOPA YouTube)

In 1981, Theresa Claiborne made history as the first Black woman to become a pilot in the U.S. Air Force, commissioned as a second lieutenant. She just retired from United Airlines after 34 years.

Imagine turning the milestone age of 65 and retiring after over 30 years in your field, all right before Memorial Day. For one groundbreaking pilot, that is no dream but reality.

On Thursday, Theresa Claiborne, who became the first Black woman to be a pilot in the United States Air Force, retired from flying after 34 years with United Airlines.

“I’ve had a great career,” Claiborne told CNN Travel before she set off for her final flight. “And it’s time for me to park the brakes for the final time on a big airplane.”

The trailblazing aviator also turned 65 on Sunday.

“Birthday mood, I’m 65 y’all!” she wrote in the caption of a post on Instagram.

Claiborne’s aviation career began on June 20, 1981, when she was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, having belonged to the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps in college. When she graduated from her flight training, she didn’t realize she had made history.

“I’m very happy I didn’t know because I think that at the age of 22, I don’t think I would have been able to handle that pressure,” she noted in a recent video by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.

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From there, she served seven years on active duty and 13 years in the Reserve, amassed more than 20,000 hours of flying experience, and inspired countless others.

Clairborne didn’t just blaze her trail to the sky; she kept the flames aglow for others to follow through the Sisters of the Skies Foundation, a nonprofit organization that aims to increase the number of Black women entering the field of professional flying.

“We have a saying: if they can see it, they can be it. If little Black girls don’t know they can be pilots, guess what? That’s not something they’re gonna choose,” she explained in the video.

She added, “We have an awful lot of women who were flight attendants and decided ‘I don’t want to make a right turn when I walk on the airplane. I want to make a left turn.’ And so we’re starting to see those numbers increase.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, out of nearly 160,000 professional pilots, 93.7% are white, 92.5% are male, and Black women make up less than half of 1%.

Earlier this year, Claiborne received the Brigadier General Charles E. McGee Aviation Inspiration Award, named for McGee, one of the original Tuskegee Airmen.

“It’s a phenomenal feeling to even be associated with the Tuskegee Airmen,” the award-winning pilot said.  “Without them, there would not have been me. It was hard for me, I won’t lie. It was hard for me being the first Black woman, but it was even harder for them.”

Initially, Claiborne wanted her final flight to be a round trip from Newark, New Jersey, to Paris, to pay homage to Bessie Coleman, who became the first Black woman to earn her aviation license after moving to France to learn how to fly.

However, the Paris route didn’t quite work out, so she went with her second choice, Lisbon, Portugal, because of the lengthy two-day layover, which she spent enjoying the city with her family, including her mother.

“My mother’s made many, many, many sacrifices for me. So this is an opportunity for her to really enjoy herself,” she told CNN.

Reflecting on the fact that after Thursday, she will no longer be in uniform while in the airport, she told CNN, “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. I want to impart that knowledge to young people, and particularly young Black women, that they can do this.”

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