Special Send-Off: Trailblazing Black Pilot Soars Into Retirement After 34 Years At United Airlines

Captain Theresa Claiborne wasPhoto Credit: Brianna Cabassa

On Monday evening, when a United Airlines 787 Dreamliner takes off from Newark Liberty International Airport for Lisbon, Portugal, with Captain Theresa Claiborne at the helm, it will mark the final outbound flight of her trailblazing 43-year career as a pilot.

Captain Claiborne was the first Black woman to fly in the U.S. Air Force in 1982 and went on to become the first instructor pilot and air commander. In 1990, she broke barriers again by joining United Airlines after successfully challenging the airline’s minimum height requirement of 5-foot-4, demonstrating that her 5-foot-2 stature did not impede her ability to perform all the duties of a commercial pilot. Her pioneering efforts opened doors for countless aspiring aviators.

Special Send-Off: Trailblazing Black Pilot Soars Into Retirement After 34 Years At United Airlines

“The moral of that story is by any means necessary,” Claiborne says with a smile. “There are women shorter than me now flying in the military and for airlines because once it’s proven that you could do it, you can do it. Who’s gonna deny you?”

Like a modern-day Bessie Coleman, Captain Claiborne’s journey from breaking racial and gender barriers in the military to her impactful tenure at United Airlines has inspired a new generation of diverse pilots, leaving an indelible mark on the aviation industry.

As passengers prepared for flights to destinations around the country and around the world, we sat across from each other in United Airlines Terminal C and Claiborne as she reiterated her long held beliefs that all people need is access and an opportunity to prove themselves.

For her, beyond being a good pilot, she has been conscious of ensuring that others who want to be in the industry get that opportunity to live out their dreams in the friendly skies. Her passion for aviation and for people could be felt with each pause, funny joke or memory shared and there are over four decades worth of those. 

“What I do as a pilot is special. I’m humble and I don’t take that for granted,” Claiborne shared, recalling that a standout moment of her career was being able to pilot a flight that her parents were on just four years into her career at United Airlines.

Special Send-Off: Trailblazing Black Pilot Soars Into Retirement After 34 Years At United Airlines

“Your parents work hard for you to just be the best that you can be and they make sacrifices, so this was the closest thing to them getting to see like, oh my gosh, this is what our daughter does, right, so it was such a proud moment for me.”

With over 23,000 flight hours, the celebrated pilot has consistently demonstrated her exceptional abilities and dedication. In 2016, she co-founded Sisters of the Skies, a nonprofit organization that provides mentorship and scholarships to Black women in aviation, raising over $1 million for future pilots. Currently, in the U.S., there are about 158,000 licensed pilots. Just 2.6%, or about 4,100, are Black, and less than one percent, or about 150, are Black women.

“We’re just as qualified as anyone else. Some people don’t believe we are but we are. But it’s money. It’s money that can be a barrier And so if you can equalize that then we take away barriers to this industry, we make it accessible, so that others can have that opportunity,” she says.

This aviation queen says her advice to Black girls and women who want to pursue a career in the industry is simple: don’t cheat yourself, stick it out and keep your eyes on the prize. 

Today, United Airlines will  celebrate Captain Claiborne at the airport before takeoff including a luncheon and a party at the gate in honor of a true trailblazer not only for the airline but for pilots everywhere. Family, friends and other pilots will also join in a celebration of such a phenomenal and impactful career. 

When asked what having such a send-off means to her, she said, “This is pretty special. The final landing and coming in and getting the water gun salute. I’m probably going to be balling and wiping tears from my eyes… but not in flight, she says jokingly.”

“They can test your ability and even your reach, but they don’t determine your altitude.”

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