Nearly 30 years before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the “I Have A Dream” speech from the nation’s capital, Army Lt. William Powell shared his own dream for America: one where Black people shed the shackles of racism and spread their wings to fly.
The former Army infantryman fell in love with aviation during his stint overseas in World War I and in 1932 became one of the rarest people in the United States: a Black man with a pilot’s license.
Powell’s semi-autobiographical book “Black Wings,” published in 1934, exhorted Black youth to seize the freedom and opportunity of air travel as he did.
“Fill the air with black wings,” he wrote.
But almost 90 years later, Powell’s dream remains one deferred. Though Black pilots have been flying almost since there were planes to fly, those wanting to break into aviation and the aerospace industry in the 21st century still face the same obstacle of racism that was present at the turn of the last century.
According to 2020 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 94% of the country’s 155,000 aircraft pilots and flight engineers identified as white. Only 3.4% were Black, with just over 10% combined of pilots and engineers listed as Black, Latinx (5.0%), or Asian (2.2%).
Women make up just 5.6%, with Black women representing less than 1% of that total. That adds up to only about 150 Black women on flight decks every year.
“I think the numbers make pretty clear that there is a lot of room for improvement,” said Joel Webley, a National Guard and airline pilot who currently chairs the board of the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP).
But when United Airlines announced a plan last month to train and hire more people of color and women to be pilots to improve diversity – at least half of its 5,000 new recruits over the next decade – it met with swift backlash from some in conservative circles.
Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, for example, claimed training more minority candidates would lead to lower aviation standards and “get people killed.”
“You realize that everybody does not feel that we should be there,” said Capt. Theresa Claiborne, the first Black woman pilot in the Air Force and the most senior officer with United Airlines.
Claiborne runs an organization, Sisters of the Skies, which specifically targets young Black women to help create a new pipeline for aspiring Black pilots.
“That’s one of the reasons why I say that my job – Theresa Claiborne’s job – is to be the best captain I can be,” she said. “To represent my company, to represent Black people, to represent Black women to show that, yeah, we do this job.”
Flying from the beginning
Resistance to the notion of Black pilots started as early as