Because Theresa Claiborne is a trailblazer in aviation, she’s had her fair share of firsts. She’s the first Black woman pilot in the U.S. Air Force, first Black woman air commander, and first Black woman instructor pilot of the KC-135. She’s also one of two Black women who are captains at United. The flight deck hadn’t historically been an option for Black women, so how was Claiborne able to break through and blaze a trail for others
Ambitious and free-thinking, Claiborne was born in Virginia but moved often because her father served in the Air Force. Despite being on planes frequently growing up, it wasn’t until she was 19 years old that she knew she wanted to be a pilot.
“I was in a T-37 and said to myself then that I was going to be a pilot,” Claiborne says of her ROTC training. After she completed her undergraduate pilot training at Laughlin Air Force Base in 1982, her career took off.
Claiborne joined United in 1990 and initially had to overcome a couple challenges. Standing at five feet, two inches, she was two inches shorter than the height required at some airlines to fly commercial aircraft at the time. But that didn’t stop her. She challenged the height requirement by demonstrating she could do everything required, and she eventually became a captain in 2017.
“United Airlines is lucky to have Theresa Claiborne,” says Helon Hammond, Managing Director of Technical Operations. “Not many people know who she is or what her story is, but once they find out, they understand just how much she means to those who know her.”
Throughout her career, people have marveled at her when they see her in uniform walking through airport terminals. One of her favorite things to do is give children wing pins and encourage them to pursue a career in aviation.
“Theresa has always been a mentor and friend,” says First Officer Carole Cary-Hopson. “Without her friendship, my world would be less colorful.”
Today, Claiborne is one of only 17 Black women pilots at United. The underrepresentation of women and pilots of color is a historic pattern for airlines, but one United wants to change. Last year, United announced plans to train 5,000 pilots by 2030— with at least half of them being women or people of color.
“If you’re growing up and you see someone who looks like you performing a task, then you believe more strongly you can do it too,” Claiborne says.
Claiborne has been a pilot at United for 32 years. She is a hall of fame honoree for the Organization for Black Aerospace Professionals, sits on the board of Women Airforce Service Pilots, and is currently the president of Sisters of the Skies, a not-for-profit organization focused on developing pathways and partnerships to help increase the number of Black women in the professional pilot career field.