Captain M'lis Ward
Bessie Coleman made history over a century ago when she became the first Black woman to receive an international pilot's certificate; a landmark moment that spurred generations of women to pursue careers in aviation. Among those standing on Coleman's shoulders is Chicago-raised United Airlines Captain M'lis Ward, who has embarked on a quest to promote female representation in the space.
Historically, the aviation business has been dominated by white men. According to research, Black women make up fewer than 1% of pilots in the United States. Ward, a pioneer in her own right as the first Black woman captain in commercial passenger aircraft, is utilising her experience to convince those from marginalized communities that there is room in the industry for them.
She's assisting United Airlines in the development of its Aviate Academy programme. The career development initiative, which began earlier this year, was established to address the country's pilot shortage as well as to enhance racial and gender diversity in the aviation industry. United hopes to educate 5,000 pilots under the project by 2030.
Ward, who was attracted to flying while serving in the military, believes that guaranteeing a place at the table for those from underrepresented groups begins with exposure and education. “It really does create a pathway for those that would have never had that opportunity in the first place,” she shared in a statement. “We have to give some deference to people who normally would not have that opportunity. Whether it is because of exposure or financial ability. We have to get young Black girls interested in flying.”
Sisters of the Skies.
Only around 150 professional Black women pilots hold airline transport pilot, commercial, military, or certificated flight instructor certifications in the United States. As mentioned before, these women account for fewer than 1% of all professional pilots in the United States, and some have made it their goal to diversify the cockpit by creating Sisters of the Skies.
Sisters of the Skies, a non-profit organisation that monitors the number of Black female pilots, was founded to encourage young girls of colour to pursue careers in aviation and to mentor young women by partnering them with Black female pilots who have already earned their wings.
When Monique Grayson, 33, was 11 years old, she boarded her first commercial trip from Detroit to San Francisco and knew she wanted to be a pilot. "I couldn't wrap my head around the fact that we were going to defy gravity for four hours," Grayson recalled.
She received a full scholarship to Western Michigan University after excelling in math and science. She was the first in her family to attend college. Grayson is now a Delta Air Lines first officer, operating the Boeing 757 and Boeing 767.
In addition to the financial strain, Grayson said the most difficult part of her path to become a pilot was not having someone to talk to who could connect to her experiences or offer advise.
Many other female pilots of color have echoed that sentiment.
"I felt like I was on an island on my own when I was going through flight training," said Joi Schweitzer, a fellow Sisters of the Skies member and pilot.
Schweitzer met Capt. Stephanie Grant while working on her instrument rating. Grant would later be a member of the first all-female African American flight crew in the United States and serve on the Board of Directors for Sisters of the Skies.
"She actually encouraged me to stay the journey because it's hard work," Schweitzer said. "Years later we ended up seeing each other again. She embraced me, and I said, 'I'm here. I made it, thanks to you.' So it's very important that we have mentorship and that we inspire the next generation of aviators."
Sisters of the Skies gives a much-needed platform for aspiring young pilots to experience the support they need to become full-time pilots, and many more will hopefully follow in the footsteps of Monique Grayson, Stephanie Ward, and Captain M'lis Ward.