Airlines are recruiting pilots, hoping to ease the current shortage, and women are eager to jump on board. But many are wary about their chance of success. They see few women pilots and often feel the industry isn’t welcoming. For Black women, the picture has been even more discouraging. According to 2020 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, women comprise only 5.6 percent of pilots in the United States, with Black women making up just 1 percent of that total. Two Black women from Jersey, both pilots, are aiming to change those numbers and inspire others.
Carole Hopson recalls lying on the grass in her grandmother’s West Collingswood backyard, watching planes fly above. “We wondered where they were headed, how many engines they had, and what airline’s name was on the plane,” says Hopson, who lives in Jersey City with her husband and two sons. Later, she flew on family trips and, on a flight to Jamaica, encountered a Black pilot for the first time. Hopson knew she had seen something special, something that was a remote possibility for her, a Black girl.
After graduating from the University of Virginia, Hopson received a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University. For seven years, she worked as a reporter for the Bergen Record and then shifted gears, taking a job as vice president of training and development at Foot Locker. Other high-level positions followed, including director of human resources at L’Oreal, but there was something missing. Piloting a plane was what Hopson really wanted to do, but she didn’t know where to start.
On her first date with her husband, he asked what she wanted most, and she answered, “I want to fly an airplane.” On their next date he gave her a gift certificate for flying lessons, and so began Hopson’s journey.
Flying lessons are expensive—about $100,000 a year—and it generally takes two years to become certified as a professional pilot. Hopson continued to work in the business world while researching the best way to pursue her goal and saving for more lessons. In 2000, she had enough to go to flight school, and by Thanksgiving of that year, she had her private pilot’s license. By 2001, she was a certified flight instructor, training others how to fly. At age 36, Hopson left her six-figure salary at L’Oreal to make $17 an hour as a flight instructor. “The goal is to get through certification as quickly as possible, and then to teach until you get a certain number of hours,” she explains. “It takes a profound kind of understanding to teach. Then, the traditional path is working for a regional airline, and then a major airline.”
Friends questioned Hopson’s choice to give up such financial security. “I would be more afraid to stay with what I know and spend the rest of my life wishing for something I wanted,” she readily told them. “Regret was the greater fear.”
At age 40, Hopson took a hiatus to raise her sons, though she continued to work part-time, giving flight lessons and working on a simulator to keep her skills fresh. In the evenings and while her children were in school, she was writing a historical fiction novel about one of her heroes: Bessie Coleman, the first Black woman to earn her pilot’s license. A Pair of Wings was published in 2021, 100 years after Coleman’s death, and was an Oprah Daily Pick. “When I wasn’t flying, I was writing,” says Hopson. “It’s amazing what you can do when you’re passionate about something.”
In 2014, Hopson entered the next stage of her career, becoming a pilot with ExpressJet, a regional airline. Three years later, she was hired by United Airlines, where she has been flying a Boeing 737 for the past five years. It took Hopson 35 years to find her way to a career as a pilot. “What looks like an overnight success,” she says, “took steadfastness and help from friends and mentors.”
Hopson would like to help others achieve similar success, but job prospects for would-be Black aviators have not improved in 20 to 30 years. To change those numbers, Hopson founded the nonprofit 100 Pairs of Wings, which offers financial assistance and mentoring to Black women interested in aviation. Funding comes through donations, and, to date, the organization has raised $45,000. While the focus is on younger women, Hopkins says women are always reinventing themselves. “Although women may be gray in the temple, they still have a lot to contribute,” she says. “We all have a good second act.”
Angel Hughes’s journey from dreamer to aviator was also filled with determination and grit. Growing up in East Orange, one of four children of Haitian immigrants, she was inspired by a sixth-grade science teacher’s astronomy lessons. “It was fascinating,” recalls Hughes, now 36 and living in East Orange with her three children. “I wanted to go up in the sky, maybe become an astronaut.” But she eventually realized that becoming a pilot was a more attainable goal.
Flights with family increased her interest. Every summer, en route to her grandparents’ home in Florida, she was invited to the flight deck to meet the captain and crew. “It was cool to see the controls,” says Hughes. “It spurred my curiosity and my passion for flying.” Although all the pilots she saw were white men, she wasn’t deterred. “I never thought about it,” she says. “I didn’t need someone to look like me to affirm my dreams.”
In high school, Hughes joined Eagle Flight Squadron, a program that awards members with flight lessons if they maintain good grades. She earned her private pilot certification before starting college at Jacksonville University in Florida.
Graduating in 2008 during the recession, Hughes discovered that opportunities for pilots were limited. “The economy wasn’t good,” she says. “Pilots were being furloughed and laid off.” For the next year and a half, she worked as a flight instructor. A year later, she became the second Black female pilot in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard, where she served for 11 years. As a Lieutenant Commander, her primary focus was search and rescue operations. Hughes recalls her last flight before going on maternity leave. Her mission: to find a boater stranded off the coast of Louisiana. The boater’s wife had called the Coast Guard in the middle of night, reporting her husband missing. After spotting the boat, Hughes and her crew air delivered food, water, and a phone to the boater, who had lost his engine and was alone. They then coordinated with the Coast Guard to tow the vessel to land.
Hughes left active duty in 2020 and now flies for United Parcel Service. In all her years of flying, Hughes says, she never saw another Black woman pilot. There were no other Black women in the aviation program at college or working as flight instructors.
But scrolling down a Facebook page one day, Hughes found another Black aviator, Nia Gilliam-Wordlaw. In 2017, the two launched a networking group, Sisters of the Skies (SOS), with the goal of increasing the number of Black female pilots through mentorship and scholarships. The organization now has about 200 members. SOS has awarded more than $100,000 in scholarships to recipients aged 18 to 56 through donations, mostly from airlines. The money goes to those who have already taken flight lessons and show they are invested in a career in aviation. “Because of the pilot shortage due to the pandemic, airlines will need more pilots for the next 5-10 years,” says Hughes. “Every airline needs pilots. It’s a perfect time to consider a career in aviation.” Despite the high cost of training, Hughes tells students they will reap the benefits within a couple of years with salaries as pilots.
“The pilot shortage will have to be eased by women,” says Hughes. “They are the savior for the aviation industry.” But they will have to overcome gender bias, which Hughes says can be subtle, adding, “I would venture to say that all women pilots have flown with or will fly with a male pilot who believes women shouldn’t be flying.”
Eleanor Gilman is a frequent contributor to New Jersey Monthly.
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