It’s been nearly a century since Bessie Coleman entered the history books as the first Black woman to perform a public flight. And while much has changed since that momentous day in 1922, the aviation industry still remains a predominantly white space.
“I am one of less than one percent in our entire industry,” United Airline’s First Officer Carole Hopson tells EBONY. The author of A Pair of Wings acknowledges that being somewhat of an anomaly as a Black woman in air transportation is something she, as well as United, would like to see change. Late last year the Chicago-based airline announced that it was making a concerted effort to create that shift with the launch of United Aviate Academy (UAA). The instructional program expects to train at least 5,000 new pilots by 2030 with a goal of half the students being women or people of color.
“Right now we have a shortage of pilots,” Hopson shares. “We believe the talent needs to be expanded and that happens when we give people access.” Hopson sees this as an extraordinary opportunity for Black women and for others who have felt a career in aviation has been out of reach. She also sees it as a smart decision on United’s part. “This is not a diversity initiative on its face. This is not just something nice to do,” Hopson asserts. “It’s a business problem that we had to apply a business solution to.”
In January, Hopson, along with students of the academy, United executives including CEO Scott Kirby, and other special guests, celebrated the opening of the 340,000 square foot state-of-the-art facility at the Phoenix Goodyear Airport that houses the flight training school. In UAA’s inaugural class, women and people of color account for 80 percent of the students enrolled in the rigorous program. United partnered with JPMorgan Chase to co-fund the $2.4 million scholarship program.
“This is an opportunity that I didn’t even know was an opportunity,” UAA student Rickiesha Foster says. “I didn’t know it was possible for me.” Foster is one of 80 selected for the program out of thousands of applicants. By attending UAA, she is entered into the United pipeline which will eventually turn the best and brightest trainees into commercial pilots.
United’s new year-long initiative took a decade of planning, but for Hopson, the reality of this program is two decades in the making. “My personal goal when I wrote the book A Pair of Wings was to get more Black women interested in aviation. I want to send 100 Black women to flight school,” the 20-year vet says.
Some of the roadblocks for Black women have included the financial obligation associated with flight school. Becoming a commercial airline pilot can cost upwards of $100,000. But both Hopson and Foster say there is a representation factor as well. Though Hopson always knew she wanted to be a pilot since her early years watching planes soar across the sky from the front yard of her grandmother’s Nebraska home, it wasn’t until she was well into her professional career that she made the decision to go to flight school.
“I didn’t see any pilots who looked like me. I didn’t see any Black women. It just seemed almost ridiculous that I could make this dream happen. How could this manifest?” Hopson remembers asking herself. “And I was 36 years old before I finally started flight school.”
For inspiration, Hopson looked to Patrice Clarke Washington, a Black woman in aviation with many firsts behind her name. “I had this picture of her reaching up in the flight deck and she’s in uniform. It was from a Black Enterprise article and the headline said something like ‘Patrice has the best window office in the company,’” Hopson recalls. “I would look at that all the time. That inspiration is really important.”
For Foster, it was First Officer Hopson who gave her the confirmation she needed. Though the native of Jamaica was a flight attendant before joining the UAA program, becoming an actual pilot was not something she fathomed. Having a reminder that it’s never too late to go after your dream encouraged Foster to pick up the phone when the opportunity to attend flight school came calling. Now the mother of two is looking forward to earning her wings at the end of her training and having a career with one of the most diverse airline carriers in the country.
“I am so blessed to be here because I get to be part of their future,” Foster says of her enrollment in UAA. “I get to be part of those numbers. And now the next generation of young ladies who thought they couldn’t do it will have me to use an as an example to say, ‘As a Black woman I can do this. I know where I’m headed.’”