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Trailblazing Pilot and First Black Woman in the US Air Force Takes Her Final Flight


After coming from Lisbon, Portugal, Captain Theresa Claiborne will make her last flight at Newark Liberty International Airport on May 23. She has been a pilot for 43 years. Claiborne has broken many barriers in her long and successful career, both in the service and in commercial aviation.

Claiborne felt a mix of pride and emotion as she talked about her work. She told CNN Travel, “I’ve had a great job.” “And it’s time for me to park the brakes for the final time on a big airplane.” She is looking forward to a moving goodbye, especially since she has inspired so many people to become pilots, especially young Black women. Claiborne said, “I hope that I can still impact the industry.” She meant that she wanted to keep inspiring people.

The start of Claiborne’s trip came as a surprise. She never thought she’d fly planes as a child. Her first flight, which took her to Turkey, made her interested in flying. “My father was in the military,” she said. “I’d been on big airplanes before but never dreamt of flying one.” When she joined the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps (AFROTC) and flew a T-37 jet trainer, her love took off.

Even though there were problems at first, like not enough training spots for women, Claiborne’s drive got her through it. She was made a second lieutenant in 1981 and was the first Black woman in the US Air Force to fly. Later, she worked as a command pilot and teacher for the KC-135, a jet that refuels planes in the air.

Claiborne switched to United companies in 1990, which let him get around the height limits that other companies had put in place. “A pilot is a pilot,” she said, stressing that her main job didn’t change when she worked for a different company. Her work has been marked by her commitment to making sure passengers have a good time. “Being good means that I’m communicating with my passengers at all times,” she said.

Claiborne picked a flight from Newark to Lisbon as her last one. Her mother close family and friends were on board. “I wanted to go to Paris,” she said, but she chose Lisbon because it had better layover times. She will get the usual water cannon salute when she lands back in Newark as a sign of respect for her retirement.

Claiborne has been a commercial pilot for United Airlines her whole career. She feels lucky to have worked for a company with a lot of women pilots. As head of Sisters of the Skies, a non-profit group that works to support the next generation of Black women pilots, she is still dedicated to this cause.

Claiborne hopes to keep mentoring people and maybe even write books after she steps down as president. Her time as a professional pilot is coming to an end, but she still wants to fly a plane from World War II. “I would love to fly in a Red Tail, which is an airplane that the Tuskegee Airmen flew,” she said, leaving the door open for more flying experiences.

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