Captain Theresa Claiborne, the First Black Woman to Fly in the US Air Force is Making Her final flight

by Joseph Omoniyi
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Captain Theresa Claiborne, the first Black woman to fly in the US Air Force, is set to make her final flight on May 23, landing at Newark Liberty International Airport. This marks the end of a distinguished 43-year career in both military and commercial aviation. Claiborne’s last journey will be a flight from Lisbon, Portugal, with friends and family joining her in this significant milestone.

Reflecting on her career, Claiborne expressed a mix of satisfaction and nostalgia. “I’ve had a great career,” she shared in an interview with CNN Travel. “It’s time for me to park the brakes for the final time on a big airplane.” While eager to explore new chapters, Claiborne admits she will miss the awe of young children who admire her in her pilot uniform.

Born in Virginia, Claiborne’s path to the cockpit was unexpected. Her aviation journey began at age 20 when she joined the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC) and experienced her first flight in a T-37 jet trainer. “Once I got that first taste of being in the air and being in command of the airplane, I knew this was what I wanted to do,” she recalled.

Despite initial obstacles, including limited training spots for women in the Air Force, Claiborne persevered. In 1981, she was commissioned as a second lieutenant and, the following year, made history as the first Black woman to fly in the US Air Force. Her pioneering achievements continued as she became the first Black woman command pilot and instructor for the KC-135 refueling jet.

Transitioning to commercial aviation in 1990, Claiborne joined United Airlines as a flight officer, eventually becoming a captain despite initial height restrictions. “A pilot is a pilot,” she emphasized, noting that the core skills remain the same across different types of flying.

Claiborne’s final flight will be aboard a United Airlines 787 Dreamliner, with her mother and closest friends celebrating this momentous occasion with her. She chose Lisbon for her farewell journey due to its two-day layover, allowing time to enjoy the city with her loved ones. Upon landing in Newark, Claiborne will receive a traditional water cannon salute, a tribute to her illustrious career.

Throughout her career, Claiborne has been committed to mentoring and inspiring the next generation of pilots, particularly young Black women. As president of Sisters of the Skies, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing the number of Black women pilots, she has worked to provide scholarships and support aspiring aviators. Although stepping down from this role, Claiborne plans to continue mentoring and writing in her retirement.

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