Touching the Sky: Women Take Flight

Currently there are less than 150 professional Black women pilots in the U.S. that hold airline transport pilot, commercial, military or certificated flight instructor certificates. These women make up less than 1% of all professional pilots in the U.S. In this post, I want to honor some of the most amazing women who have been touching the skies as they take flight!

First, let me introduce and highlight Ariel Messam. I am not only proud of her recent extraordinary accomplishment, but I am also excited because she hails from my home state! Ariel took her first flight at 14 years old, and a couple of years and financial breaks later, made her remarkable feat official.

Who’s That Girl?

On August 14, 2023, 18-year-old Ariel Messam from Jamaica, New York became the youngest Black woman and woman of color to be a Certified Private Pilot in her state and nationwide!

Messam attended and graduated from Aviation Career & Technical Education High School in Queens, New York from 2018-2022. Her accomplishment came a year after graduation. She earned both her high school diploma and her certification as an Aircraft Powerplant Technician while playing varsity basketball.

According to Blacknews.com, in 2022, Messam began working as a Flight Simulation Instructor at Level Up and Take Off, a New York City-based 501(c)3 organization created by her brother, Anthony Messam, that promotes diversity, inclusion, and equitability in aviation, real estate, and financial management.

In addition to her amazing flight resume, she is also an ambassador for Girls Love to Fly. This non-profit organization has one mission in mind: to empower women from all walks of life by helping those interested in becoming aviators. They do this through offering scholarship opportunities continuously as well as discovery flights. How amazing is this?

Ariel Messam primarily flies out of Republic Airport in Farmingdale, New York. You can follow her journey as she takes flight and view clips of her flying adventures via her social media.

Female Pilots are Not an Anomaly

Female pilots are not an anomaly. Nearly everyone has heard about Amelia Earhart, the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. Yet, not as many are familiar with the existence of Black women who are licensed pilots.

Did you know that Bessie Coleman was the first African American woman to become a licensed pilot? In 1921, Bessie Coleman soared across the sky as the first woman of African American and Native American descent to earn her pilot’s license in the U.S. Known for performing flying tricks, Coleman’s nicknames were “Brave Bessie,” “Queen Bess,” and “The Only Race Aviatrix in the World.” Her goal was to encourage women and African Americans to reach their dreams. This became her legacy. Though her life and career were cut short in a tragic plane crash, her life and legacy continue to inspire people around the world. 

Coleman’s brothers served in the military during World War I and would tell her stories of their time in France. Her brother John teased her because French women were allowed to learn how to fly airplanes, but in the United States, she couldn’t. Stories her brothers shared and other news of pilots in the war, inspired her to become a pilot.

Coleman applied to many flight schools across the country, but no school would take her because she was both African American and a woman. However, a Black newspaper publisher encouraged her to move to France where she could learn how to fly. Her application to flight schools needed to be written in French. So, guess what? Bessie began taking French classes at night. Finally, she was accepted at the Caudron Brothers School of Aviation in Le Crotoy, France. She received her international pilot’s license on June 15, 1921, from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.

Returning to the United States, to earn money, Coleman gave speeches at churches, theaters, and schools showing films of her air tricks to earn money. In 1922, she performed the first public flight by an African American woman. Her increased popularity both in the U.S. and in Europe encouraged African Americans and women to learn how to fly. 

On April 30, 1926, Bessie Coleman was killed in a plane crash while on a test flight with a mechanic named William Wills who piloted the plane. In 1995, the “Bessie Coleman Stamp” was made to commemorate all her accomplishments. In August of 2022, an all-Black female crew operated an American Airlines flight from Dallas to Phoenix in honor of Bessie Coleman, the first Black woman to earn a pilot’s license.

In 2023, the U.S. Mint released a special quarter featuring Bessie Coleman as part of the American Women Quarters™ Program

Moving On…and We’re Moving

The Washington Post reported on March 5, 2014, that First Army Lt. Demetria (Dina) Elosiebo became the first African American female pilot for the D.C. National Guard. The month before graduating, she earned her wings after completing training at the Initial Entry Rotary Wing Flight School at Fort Rucker, Alabama.

As a little girl, Elosiebo shared that her nights were filled with dreams of her soaring through the night sky. Those long-ago dreams of taking flight became reality. At the age of thirty-three, Elosiebo graduated from Army flight school, becoming the first Black female aviator in the District of Columbia National Guard. She joined an elite group, when at that time only 5 percent of the Army National Guard’s 5,763 pilots were women.

Before joining the Guard, Elosiebo received her FAA commercial pilots license and was a certified flight instructor. The history-making pilot can thank the legendary Tuskegee Airmen for helping her make history. She is the recipient of an Airmen scholarship and trained by Tuskegee Airman Herbert Jones, who started the first Black-owned airline in America. Lt. Elosiebo currently serves as a pilot/commander and the Operations Security Manager for her unit.

Let me add a very honorable mention: 13 years prior to Lt. Elosiebo, Vernice “FlyGirl” Armour – a former United States Marine Corps officer – became the first African-American female naval aviator in the Marine Corps and America’s first Black female combat pilot. 

Flying Upward and Forward

As I further researched Black female aviators, I came across a group called Sisters of the Skies. In 2017, S.O.S., Inc. was filed as a nonprofit corporation in the state of Texas. In 2018 the charter board members were recruited, and their leadership established as a nationally recognized organization focused on increasing the number of Black female pilots in professional flight decks in both military and commercial aviation.

Although there’s been a steady growth in the number of female pilots in the last few decades, the percentage of female pilots remains low. Data collected in 2022 by the Pilot Institute indicates there are only 72,428 women pilots, which accounts for 9.57% of the total. These numbers become significantly less if you discount the pilots that only hold student licenses.

Gender doesn’t matter when it comes to flying a plane. Female aviators and their accomplishments in touching the sky provide inspiration for other females. The cockpit doors are opening wider, letting Black females know a piloting career is within their reach.

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