White men have ruled the sky as airline pilots, but that’s finally changing

A pilot’s pin worn by one of United Airlines’ women pilots.

Richard A. Chapman/Sun-Times

When you hear “this is your captain speaking” on an airline flight in the United States, more than 90% of the time, the speaker is a white male. Just 3.4% of U.S. airline pilots are Black, 2.2% are of Asian descent, and a paltry 0.5% are Hispanic or Latino. Women make up just 4.6%.

As the U.S. population trends to greater racial and ethnic diversity, airline pilots look less like their passengers. This imbalance began after World War II when the airlines feasted on the glut of 200,000 military-trained pilots who returned to civilian life.

Not all those military-trained pilots were white men. Black women, including Chicago aviatrix Janet Harmon Bragg, were shut out from military flight training, but more than 1,000 white civilian women flew military aircraft in the U.S. And nearly 1,000 Black men trained as military pilots and flew in segregated units.

After the war, airlines refused to hire these experienced women and Black men.

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Two decades later, David E. Harris became the first Black pilot at a major airline when American Airlines hired him in 1964. White women waited until 1973 when Frontier Airlines hired Emily Howell Warner. Black women waited even longer, until 1978, when Texas International Airlines hired Jill Elaine Brown.

Potential pilots, still grounded

Almost 50 years later, the U.S. airline pilot population still lacks diversity. One huge issue is that most would-be pilots who aren’t white males don’t know anyone in the airline business to guide them through the opaque pilot training and hiring processes. Thus, those who enter the pipeline also tend to be white males, who now make up only 30% of the U.S. population. That remaining 70% represents a lot of potential talent being left on the ground. Fortunately, the airlines are starting to do things differently.

Two years ago, Chicago-based United Airlines decided to make piloting careers more accessible by opening their own flight training academy, United Aviate, with the goal to train 5,000 new pilots by 2030 and an additional goal that half those pilots be women or people of color.

The backlash was immediate.

Twitter exploded with comments such as one accusing United of being “woke” and claiming that the program is “dangerous.” The poster also stated, “Hire the best person for the job. Period. … Meritocracy all the way.”

But meritocracy only works when the playing field is level, a condition that only arises when everyone knows about piloting careers and has access to those careers. United Aviate is trying to level that playing field. 

American Airlines has had its own Cadet Academy since 2018, and nearly 100 pilots have graduated from the program. American’s stated goals include “[eliminating] financial barriers . . . while creating greater diversity among future and current pilot ranks,” and the academy’s home page depicts the kind of diversity the airline is hoping to attract — men and women of all colors. Delta and Southwest Airlines have partnered with historically Black colleges and universities to increase opportunities and access to airline careers for Black pilots.

Training ‘the best pilots’

These programs are not handouts. Prospective students are subject to rigorous screening tests, medical exams, background checks and a drug screen.

The training isn’t free either. Program fees are upward of $90,000, although the airlines offer financial assistance through grants and partnerships with aviation organizations and banks that provide scholarships and loans.

Before those who attend a flight training academy get anywhere near an airline, they have to accumulate more than 1,500 flying hours and pass at least seven FAA check rides that hold them to stringent standards. In other words, we can expect that these new pilots will be “the best pilots.”

So far, the programs seem promising. Unite Aviate’s first class, which graduated recently, included 80% women or minorities, representative of the younger workforce. These and other airline academy graduates are now working as certified flight instructors and commercial pilots to build the time needed to earn their airline transport pilot certificates, which will allow them to enter a regional airliner or another partner pipeline on their way to an eventual career with a major airline.

It may take decades to overcome the trickle-down effect of the past practices that led to the imbalance in our airline pilot workforce. Efforts by the airlines that cast a wide net will help to correct that balance and the rigorous training provided by the academies will also ensure the U.S. has the best pilots in the world. 

Eileen Bjorkman is a retired Air Force colonel and author of “The Fly Girls Revolt: The Story of the Women Who Kicked Open the Door to Fly in Combat,” published in May 2023 by Knox Press. She will appear at the Pritzker Military Museum and Library on Sept. 21.

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The views and opinions expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chicago Sun-Times or any of its affiliates.

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