Success Story

Meet Captain Theresa M. Claiborne, the first Black female pilot in the U.S. Air Force who just retired

Get to know Capt. Theresa Claiborne, a trailblazer in modern aviation. In 1982, she became the first Black woman to fly with the U.S. Air Force, and in 1990, she joined United, where she later became a captain, according to CNN.

Claiborne accumulated more than 20,000 flight hours during her career. On Thursday, May 23, 2024, she undertook her last flight to mark the end of her career in the aviation sector. She made her final landing for United on Thursday at Newark, New Jersey’s Newark Liberty International Airport.

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

While on retirement after 43 years of flying planes, Claiborne hopes she can “still make an impact on the industry,” she noted in the interview with CNN.

In a post on Instagram to mark her retirement, she wrote, “I plan to spend my days inspiring young people to follow their dreams by turning them into goals, shattering glass ceilings, and defying all odds. I’ll be calling in my friends from all around the world to share their experiences to empower the next generation of trailblazers who are destined for greatness.”

“It’s been a pleasure to be your Captain and an absolute honor to fly the friendly skies,” her post concluded.

Claiborne did not imagine herself becoming a pilot. She was only seven years old when she took her first flight, an international jaunt to Turkey. Originally from Virginia, her father served in the military, which gave her the opportunity to be on big planes.

“My father was military,” she said. “So I grew up really all over the world… I’d been on big airplanes before but never dreamt of flying one.”

However, things changed when she joined the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC) during college and was allowed to fly in a T-37, a twin-engine jet trainer, according to CNN.

“Once I got that first taste of being in the air and being in command of the airplane, I was like, ‘Yeah, this is what I’m going to do,” said Claiborne, who was about 20 at the time.

Claiborne initially wanted to apply for undergraduate pilot training, but at the time, the U.S. Air Force was only training 10 women a year and had already selected the women for the training. However, when the number increased, she seized the opportunity to earn her pilot wings.

After six months, she graduated from California State University in Sacramento and began pilot training.

“It’s sink or swim… Either you make it or you don’t,” she noted about her initial challenge of getting trained as a pilot. According to her, she “didn’t have a strong math background.” She continued, “I just beared down and made sure that I made it, because that’s the kind of personality I have.”

She became the first black woman to fly in the U.S. Air Force after receiving her commission as a second lieutenant in 1981. She then became a flight officer for United Airlines while committed to increasing pilot diversity.

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, 93.7% of professional pilots are White and 92.5% of professional pilots are male. Thee are now about 150 Black women pilots in the U.S.

Claiborne was one of 25 Black female pilots at United Airlines at the time of her retirement.

Abu Mubarik

Abu Mubarik is a journalist with years of experience in digital media. He loves football and tennis.

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