Faces of Black Excellence October 29, 2021 at 10:00 am

After becoming U.S. Coast Guard’s 1st Black woman pilot, this Jamaican helped another become 2nd

Mildred Europa Taylor | Head of Content

Mildred Europa Taylor October 29, 2021 at 10:00 am

October 29, 2021 at 10:00 am | Faces of Black Excellence

Jeanine Menze and Lashanda Holmes. Image via Instagram

There are more than 800 pilots in the U.S. Coast Guard charged with maritime security, safety, and stewardship. These pilots perform search and rescue missions usually against threats from the weather. Since 1790 that the Coast Guard was established, there was no Black woman pilot until 215 years later when Jamaican-born woman Jeanine Menze joined the service.

She became the first Black woman pilot in the Coast Guard but didn’t stop there as she went on to mentor another Black woman to become the second.

Menze had been dreaming of becoming a pilot for years. Growing up in Kingston, Jamaica, she would watch airplanes take off and land at the local airport. She later moved with her family to Canada before they finally settled in South Florida. There, at the age of 18, Menze decided to register for her first flight lesson at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach. But seeing so many Whites and males lined up for aeronautical science classes dampened her hopes.

“I don’t see anyone that looks like me, and I felt like I didn’t belong,” Menze told StoryCorps. She said she decided to try coding after seeing a few women in that line. However, a year later, she wasn’t satisfied as she believed she was at the wrong place. With bravery and strength, Menze registered for an introductory flight lesson at an airport, where she was glad to see a woman flight instructor.

While there, she took off at the controls of a Cessna Skyhawk and flew over the Everglades. By 2005, Menze was awarded her Wings of Gold, indicating that she had graduated from advanced flight training and was now the first Black woman aviator in the U.S. Coast Guard.

Menze was assigned to fly the HC-130 Hercules plane, a large search and rescue aircraft used in a number of missions. The Jamaican woman was also part of the rescue efforts after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. But being the only Black woman pilot, Menze said she felt uncomfortable until two years later when she met La’Shanda Holmes and helped introduce her to the world of flight.

“I wanted a partner. I wanted somebody else there. So, when I met you, I saw myself,” Menze told Holmes.

From foster care to Spelman in 2007, Holmes graduated from Officer Candidate School in 2008 and completed flight school in 2010 at the age of 25. Graduating from her aviation program, she became the first Black woman helicopter pilot for the Coast Guard and the military branch’s second Black woman pilot.

At graduation ceremonies of student pilots, family and friends usually pin new Wings of Gold on the students. But during Holmes’ graduation ceremony in April 2010, Menze gave Holmes her Wings Of Gold. She explained why: “I wanted to make some sort of gesture to say that we’re all gonna be there for each other; all the other black and brown girls that were gonna be coming up behind us. And immediately I thought the best way to do that was … you are going to have my wings.”

Holmes, who called the pinning ceremony “a really emotional experience” for them, said, “Both of our eyes were watering and she asked me ‘Are you ready for this?’ I can’t think of a more awesome moment in my life.”

She said that as Menze was putting the wings on her chest, she felt like she was “Wonder Woman”, adding that she was so proud to be a woman and Black. “I was proud to know you. You’ve changed my mind about what’s possible,” Holmes told Menze.

Holmes, who pilots an MH-65 Dolphin, has managed over 6,800 flight hours. The 36-year-old has protected South Florida’s borders against threats from the sea for the MH-65 and was appointed to the 2015-2016 class of White House Fellows. Holmes has also worked as a special assistant to the administrator of NASA in a White House fellowship program.

And since her graduation from flight school, the number of Black women pilots in the maritime branch has risen to six. StoryCorps reports that there are others waiting in the wings.

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