February is Black History Month—a time when we honor and reflect on the important contributions made by Black people. In aviation, there are trailblazers such as Bessie Coleman and the Tuskegee Airmen, who broke through barriers in the industry and paved the way for future Black aviators. United has the distinct privilege and honor to recognize 787 Captain Theresa Claiborne, who is celebrating 34 years of service with the airline and will retire later this year after an incredible journey as a pilot.
Captain Claiborne made aviation history as the first Black woman pilot in the U.S. Air Force in 1982, and she also served as the first Black woman air commander and instructor pilot of the KC-135. She joined United in 1990 after proving the minimum height requirement to fly a commercial aircraft (5-foot-4) was an unnecessary barrier. Standing at 5-foot-2, she was able to perform all the required duties of a commercial pilot. Since her start, she’s continued to build a legacy that has benefited and inspired countless aspiring aviators. Beyond her many personal accomplishments, Captain Claiborne is known for cultivating the next generation of pilots, through mentorship and hours of volunteerism.
Claiborne currently serves as president of Sisters of the Skies, a nonprofit aviator organization focused on developing Black aviators through mentorship, professional development, outreach, and scholarships. Its mission is to increase the number of Black women pilots in military and commercial aviation, as less than 1 percent of Black women are certified pilots in the U.S.
Stephanie Grant, a 777 First Officer, is one of the many aviators who was inspired by Claiborne. “As a student pilot, I remember attending aviation conventions and wanting to meet the Theresa Claiborne,” Grant says. “I could never get close enough to introduce myself, but I hoped that one day we’d get to meet, and I’d get to ask her to be my mentor. I eventually met her, and the mentorship relationship happened organically. I have had the honor and privilege to work alongside her as a board member of Sisters of the Skies. She continues to work tirelessly to help create pathways that have single-handedly increased the number of Black professional female pilots. I am grateful to call her my mentor, friend, colleague, and family, but most importantly, she is Black history. She will be missed at United, and I wish her the best in this next chapter.”
Helon Hammond, Vice President for Global Learning, People, and Community Impact at United, notes the magnitude of Captain Claiborne’s impact on the industry and on Black aviators. “I am privileged to share space with Theresa, whose unparalleled humility and unwavering commitment to service and building the next generation are truly extraordinary,” she says.
Throughout her career, Captain Claiborne has demonstrated what is possible if you dream big, put in the work, and give back. We thank her for the history she has made and the path she has established for others to succeed and thrive in the industry.