The friendly skies have not always been so kind to Black people.
Airports were largely segregated, and many Blacks could not afford ticket fares. To make the distinction, though airlines were not legally segregated, airports actively practiced it and African Americans who did fly faced discrimination.
Serving on the U.S. House of Representatives for Michigan, Charles Diggs Jr. helped to revolutionize segregation in national airports. It was not until 1948 when airports were legally desegregated allowing for the opportunity for more Blacks to fly. The recently ended World War II had bred a line of Black pilots ready to take to the skies once more, but commercial airlines, though integrated, were not accepting of Black airline pilots.
While the Tuskegee Airmen were some of the first Black men in the skies during World War II, commercial flying was unheard of. Desegregation was just half the battle. Jobs in the skies continued to be exclusively white until Perry H. Young Jr., a former helicopter pilot and instructional trainer for the Tuskegee Airmen, broke the barrier and became the first Black commercial pilot in 1957 after his first official flight as a copilot. In 1958, Ruth Carol Taylor broke color lines and served as the first Black stewardess for Mohawk Airlines.
Now, African Americans are taking to the skies and occupying careers that had formally never been an option. With just three percent of pilots and 13 percent of attendants being Black, there is room for improvement in diversity. Yet, some are taking to the skies for personal enjoyment and breaking barriers in their own way.
“I became interested in learning how to fly from a horror-thriller film called ‘Spell’ I saw a few months ago. The opening scene starts off with a Black man flying his wife and two children from one state to another to visit his family in his private plane,” says Kenny Jordan, regional leadership development facilitator at Kaiser Permanente. “While the movie isn’t about him flying the plane, I thought it would be so cool to fly my immediate family anywhere on a plane that I own. That’s when I started researching how to become a pilot.”
Pilots and flight attendants alike endure intensive training and active flying before becoming certified to legally fly or attend commercial airlines. Commercial pilots are required by the Federal Aviation Administration to have 1,500 hours to fly. To earn a private pilot license, it will take two months and 40 hours while flight attendants are required to have up to six weeks of training.
Though Black flight attendants are a rarity in the skies, flight attendant numbers are on the rise, offering more opportunity for people of color. The pandemic also provided a silver lining for new incomers to join the ranks.
“I have been in the airline business for a little over a year and a half, starting February 2020, right before COVID sent everything into shutdown and quarantine. I was interested because it would afford me the opportunity of traveling to places I wouldn’t normally get the chance to given my current work position at the time,” says Joshua Matthews, who is an active flight attendant.
To help increase the number of Black pilots and flight attendants, some believe knowledge around the career path must grow. The number of pilots and attendants is projected to grow in the next ten years, as per the Bureau of Labor Statistics, however, Black children are often not exposed to flying, thus rarely have the opportunity to view it as a viable career option.
“I think exposure is the biggest thing that would increase the number of minority pilots and flight attendants. I’m not sure of the process of becoming a flight attendant, but I do know there’s plenty of universities that have Aviation degrees,” says Jordan. “Some of these programs are at Historically Black College and Universities. To obtain your pilot license, a person needs 55 to 60 hours of practical flight time, including day and night flying and the simulation machine, to become a pilot. The process of becoming a pilot can be a little pricey, but with proper planning and patience more Black people would become pilots.”
More than 70 years have passed since airports were legally desegregated and Black flight attendants still face some racism in the air.
“I honestly haven’t faced too many adversities in the industry, but I will say advancing requires you to be at the top of your game and really put your good foot forward. I will say, on some days I find myself having to hold my composure and keep a smile in the face of racism onboard the aircraft,” says Matthews.
As November ushers in National Aviation Month, history reminds us of the Black men and women who broke color barriers and allowed for generations of African Americans to take to the skies.