Meet the first Black pilot of the US Air Force who has retired after 43 years of flying

BY Preta Peace Namasaba May 27, 2024 10:15 AM EDT

Captain Theresa Claiborne, the first African-American woman to fly in the United States Air Force, has celebrated her retirement. On her final flight on May 23, she landed a United 787 Dreamliner in Newark, New Jersey, after a journey from Lisbon, Portugal. The trailblazing pilot received the symbolic water cannon salute as she celebrated her 43-year career with loved ones.

“I’ve had a great career. And it’s time for me to park the brakes for the final time on a big airplane,” Claiborne said before setting off for Lisbon.

Although Claiborne grew up around airplanes, she never imagined herself as a pilot as a young girl. Her father was in the military and she took her first flight, an international jaunt, to Turkey at about seven years old. In college, Claiborne joined the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC) and was allowed to fly in a T-37, a twin-engine jet trainer. She immediately knew what she wanted to do once she tasted the feeling in the air and was in command of the airplane.

The US Air Force was only training 10 women a year at the time and Claiborne was unable to apply for undergraduate pilot training as they had already selected the women for my graduating class. When the number soon increased, she took the opportunity to earn her pilot wings. She began pilot training around six months after graduating from California State University in Sacramento. The program was particularly difficult at first as Claiborne did not have a strong math background but she “beared down” and emerged victorious.

In 1981, Claiborne was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the USAF. She became the first African-American female pilot in the U.S. Air Force after graduating from Laughlin Air Force Base the following year. Claiborne went on to become the first Black woman to serve as a command pilot and instructor for the KC-135, a mid-air refueling jet. She was later promoted to captain, retiring from the military in 2003 with over 3000 military flight hours.

Claiborne broke more barriers in aviation when she successfully challenged United Airlines’ minimum height requirement of 5-foot-4 in 1990. She demonstrated that her 5-foot-2 stature did not impede her ability to perform all the duties of a commercial pilot. Her efforts opened doors for many aspiring aviators with her tenure at United Airlines inspiring a new generation of diverse pilots.

“The moral of that story is by any means necessary. There are women shorter than me now flying in the military and for airlines because once it’s proven that you could do it, you can do it. Who’s gonna deny you?” Claiborne said about her groundbreaking challenge of the minimum height requirement.

She co-founded Sisters of the Skies, a nonprofit organization that provides mentorship and scholarships to Black women in aviation in 2016. At the time of her retirement, Claiborne was one of 25 Black female pilots at United Airlines. Her plans include becoming an author and fulfilling her dream of piloting a historic WWII aircraft or Tuskegee Airmen’s legendary Red Tail fighter.

“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,” Claiborne wrote in an Instagram post.