1st Black Woman To Fly In U.S. Air Force Retires As A United Airlines Pilot

Captain Theresa Claiborne, the trailblazing pilot who became the first African American woman to fly in the U.S. Air Force, celebrated her retirement from United Airlines with a final flight on May 23.

Claiborne’s nearly 43-year aviation career came full circle as she landed a United 787 Dreamliner in Newark, New Jersey, after a journey from Lisbon, Portugal. CNN reported that upon arrival, the pilot received the symbolic water cannon salute as she celebrated with loved ones. Reflecting on this transition, Claiborne remarked, “After this, walking through the airport, I won’t have a uniform on…People will just look at me like I’m just a passenger like everyone else; that’ll be a little different.”

The Virginia native’s passion for flying took root at age seven after her first flight. She joined the Air Force Reserve Office Training Force in college, solidifying her path after experiencing the thrill of piloting a T-37 jet trainer. “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,” she said. Following the completion of her pilot’s license just months after graduating from California State University in Sacramento, Claiborne was commissioned as a second lieutenant.

The pioneering aviator shattered barriers in 1981 as the first Black woman to fly in the U.S. Air Force. “I still get chills when I think about the fact that I was the first,” Claiborne said. Her milestones continued as the first Black woman command pilot and instructor for the KC-135 refueling jet.

Claiborne joined United Airlines in 1990 as a flight officer before being promoted to captain.


We salute you sis!!! 🙌🏾🙌🏾🙏🏾👏🏾✊🏾 Captain Theresa Claiborne undoubtedly has innumerable accomplishments and achievements. Some of the highlights include: 7 years USAF active duty 13 years USAF Reserves duty 34 years as a @united pilot (767 and 787) Co-founder and President of @sistersoftheskies And most recently, recipient of the Brigadier General Charles E. McGee Aviation Inspiration Award This #historymaker is commanding aircraft in the sky, inspiring our youth to take the leap and fly! #RepresentationMatters #Iamqualified #blackexcellence #blackgirlmagic #representationmatters✊🏾👩🏾 #westandontheshouldersofgiants #westandontheshouldersofourancestors #soproudofher #lovetoseeit 📹: @brithedp

♬ original sound – African Heritage City

Of her longtime employer, she said she feels blessed to have been able to work as a pilot for the airline. She acknowledged her significant responsibility as one of the fewer than 150 Black women pilots in the US. The accomplished aviator is the current President of Sisters of the Skies, a nationally recognized non-profit organization, which BLACK ENTERPRISE previously highlighted for empowering Black women to become pilots. According to the organization, the team of experienced aviators works to improve the number of Black female pilots in both military and commercial aviation. CNN noted that Claiborne will be stepping down from her position with Sisters of the Skies but vowed to continue mentorship. “To still impart that knowledge on young people, and particularly young black women, that they can do this,” Claiborne said as she looks to the future.

Her future plans include becoming an author and the dream of one day piloting a historic WWII aircraft or Tuskegee Airmen’s legendary Red Tail fighter.

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