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Saturday, June 22, 2024

64-year-old woman who made history as first black female pilot in the US Air Force retires after 43 years of flying

64-year-old, Captain Theresa M. Claiborne who made history as the first black female pilot to ever be in the United States Air Force celebrates her retirement after 43 years of flying a plane.

Captain Theresa, from Virginia retired after 43 years of flying, first as a second lieutenant and the first Black female pilot in the United States Air Force, and then as a captain at United Airlines.

She told CNN that she never imagined becoming a pilot growing up. She said she was about seven years old when she took her first flight through her father who was a Military officer.

“My father was military, So I grew up really all over the world… I’d been on big airplanes before but never dreamt of flying one,” she said. However in college, she was opportuned to to fly in a T-37, a twin-engine jet trainer when she joined the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC) during college.


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Captain Theresa said it was at that moment she decided to become a pilot after the experience. “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.

She stated that when she wanted to apply for undergraduate pilot training,  the United States Air Force only trained 10 women a year at the time and had already selected the women for her graduating class.

However, this number soon increased, and she jumped at the opportunity to apply. Captain Theresa said six months after graduating from California State University in Sacramento, United States she began pilot training.


Captain Theresa said initially, it was challenging as she did not have a strong math background but she persevered through. “It’s sink or swim… Either you make it or you don’t. I just beared down and made sure that I made it, because that’s the kind of personality I have,” she said.

In 1981, Captain Theresa was commissioned as a second lieutenant and became the first Black woman to fly in the United States Air Force the following year. Consequently, she also became the first Black woman to serve as a command pilot and instructor for the KC-135, a mid-air refueling jet.

In 1990, she joined United Airlines as a flight officer and within a short time, she became a United Airlines captain.

 She said she has always prided herself on being the best pilot that she could possibly be, emphasizing that a big part of this is ensuring that her passengers enjoy the flying experience.

Captain Theresa will be having her final landing at New Jersey’s Newark Liberty International Airport in the United States. Upon arrival, she will receive the water cannon salute, a mark of respect that sees two fire engines use their water cannons to create a huge arc over a plane.

“That’s something that retiring people look forward to. It’s pretty special. “I’m a pretty emotional person. I’m hoping I don’t cry. But I probably will have a few tears,” she said.

She is currently the president of Sisters of the Skies, a not-for-profit organization focused on helping increase the number of Black women pilots, which awards scholarships to “women who are able, and who want to be pilots.”

Captain Theresa said she will be stepping down as president of the organization after seven years, but she plans to continue mentoring young girls long into her retirement, as well as write books.


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