Captain Theresa Claiborne Closes Out Historic Career as a History-Making Black American Female Pilot

For over four decades, Captain Theresa Claiborne has set out to not only rewrite the history books in the world of aviation, but to also leave a profound legacy that will serve as a blueprint for generations to come. A storied career that includes becoming the first African-American female pilot in the United States Air Force in 1982, being the first Black woman to serve as a command pilot and instructor for the Boeing KC-135 Stratotanker and the second Black woman to be hired by United Airlines as a pilot—Claiborne recently took her final flight as she soars into her next chapter, retirement.

The flight took off last week from Jersey’s EWR international airport as it headed to Lisbon, Portugal. Making her final return back to New Jersey on May 23, 2024, Captain Claiborne recalls the emotions felt as she got into the cockpit for her last commercial flight.

“Taking my final commercial flight was a bittersweet experience,” she tells EBONY. “There was a profound sense of accomplishment and pride in having navigated a successful career, coupled with a touch of sadness knowing that a significant chapter of my life was closing. I felt immense gratitude for all the people who supported me throughout my journey, and for the opportunity to inspire future generations of aviators.”

Captain Claiborne during her early years as a pilot. Image: Courtesy of Claiborne.

A contrast to her first time navigating an aircraft decades before, the trailblazing airline captain says that day was filled with excitement, nervousness, and a sense of the unknown. She had her eyes and mind set on breaking barriers not just for herself, but for the other Black women who would come after her.

To-date, there are less than 200 Black women out of 158,000 commercial pilots in the United States. Yes, let that sink in. These disproportionate numbers and the lack of representation were the driving force behind Claiborne, and fellow Black female pilots Christine Angel Hughes and Nia Gilliam-Wordlaw, co-founding Sisters of the Skies in 2016. Since then, the nonprofit 501(3)(c) organization has held true to its mission in supporting and building a more diverse next generation of aviation pilots while giving away more than $1M in scholarships.

Claiborne with Sisters of the Skies members. Image: Courtesy of Sisters of the Skies.

“My journey has always been aimed at inspiring young Black girls and boys, and indeed all young people from underrepresented backgrounds, to pursue their dreams in aviation or any field they are passionate about,” Claiborne shares. “By breaking barriers and shattering stereotypes, I want to show that the sky is not the limit; it is just the beginning. My career should serve as a testament to the power of perseverance, resilience, and the belief that we all belong in every sphere of society, including the flight deck.”

The average person can barely sum up a multi-decade career in just a few words. Add to that a career that has been filled with countless stories and encounters and well, you may just need an entire book to truly understand. But for Captain Theresa Claiborne, she says its been “a thrilling adventure marked by groundbreaking achievements, personal growth, and the joy of flying. It has been a journey of overcoming obstacles, challenging norms, and paving the way for those who come after me.”

As for her most memorable moments during her time in commercial aviation, it was without question being able to fly her mother.

Claiborne with her mother (center), friends and family in Lisbon, Portugal. Image: Courtesy of Claiborne.

“She’s the wind beneath my wings. The sacrifices that she made for me, for years, made it all worth it to me. She’s my why, and a  powerful reminder of how far we have come and how significant representation is in industries where diversity has been historically lacking. That moment reinforced my mission to mentor and support aspiring pilots, ensuring that the path I helped pave remains open and accessible for future generations.”

While she may have given her final “flight attendants prepare for landing” over those United Airlines speakers, Claiborne will still actively mentor and inspire the next generations, in hopes that they too will write their own piece of history some day.

“I want to invest my time in programs that encourage young people, particularly those from underrepresented communities, to explore careers in aviation and STEM fields. Retirement is not an end, but a new beginning filled with opportunities to continue making a difference and enjoying life’s many adventures.”

Thank you Captain Theresa Claiborne for your service. We at EBONY salute you and your remarkable career in aviation.

Updated: May 30, 2024 — 12:01 pm