Black History Month: Trailblazers in Aviation

Thursday, February 25, 2016
EMBED <>More Videos

These days it's commonplace to see black flight attendants, pilots and all kinds of specialists working in the airline industry.

CHICAGO -- These days it's commonplace to see black flight attendants, pilots and all kinds of specialists working in the airline industry.

But that was not always the case. That's why some local aviators are trying to make sure the younger generation knows about the people who first rose above the clouds and how they can do that as well.

These students from Chicago's Gwendolyn Brooks High School are dreaming of careers in aviation.

"I really want to fly, so hopefully when I go to college, I can major in mechanical engineering and then fly," said senior Zakiyah Dillard.

"Being on a plane, it's exciting. But when I have those headphones on and I hear those people talking and I'm like, 'That's what I want to do!'" said junior Mya Coley.

And they may be well on their way because of a program called Bessie Coleman Aviation All-Stars, founded by the great-niece of the Chicagoan who is credited with being the first black woman aviator.

"They fly. They are exposed to careers. They do various seminars, and they get the history, what our people had to go through, explaining to them the doors are wide open to you. All you have to do is get out there and make yourself available," said founder Gigi Coleman.

But that has not always been so easy, according to Chicago's Casey Grant. She talks about the early struggles for black flight attendants in her book, "Stars In The Sky."

"The first black flight attendant to apply for the job was in 1956. She applied and was hired on paper. And she went to the class and showed up, and they saw that she was black. And they told her they didn't have a position for her," said Grant.

Grant says that happened at Delta, where she herself flew for 35 years, before retiring as a supervisor.

Now she lectures about those turbulent times.

"The times when the pilots wouldn't allow us in the cockpit, and that's part of our duty to serve the passengers and also take care of the cockpit. And they would deny us access to the cockpit," Grant said.

Today, the retired pilots teaching the students agree that the sky is the limit for young hopefuls. As evidenced by the fact that they are learning at the Bessie Coleman Aviation Center in Gary, Indiana, one of the few black-owned-and-operated aeronautical facilities in the entire nation. It too, honors legendary aviation pioneer Bessie Coleman.

"People think it's just the pilots and flight attendants, and there's more than that. There's a lot of people that keep the aircraft flying - air traffic controllers, weather people - it's a whole lot," said GM and co-owner Benjamin Toles.

Bessie Coleman Drive near O'Hare was also named for the former Chicago manicurist who had to go to France in order to get her pilot's license.

Bessie Coleman Aviation All-Stars:

"Stars in the Sky" by Casey Grant: