First Black Woman Pilot In US Air Force Takes Last Flight Post 43 Years

Captain Theresa Claiborne is the first black woman to fly in the United States Air Force. She has been working with United Airlines for the last 34 years and is all set to retire.

Tanya Savkoor
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On May 23, Captain Theresa Claiborne helmed a usual United Airlines aircraft from Newark Liberty International Airport to Lisbon, Portugal. Still, this flight held a special place in her heart-- the last flight in her illustrious career spanning over four decades. Capt Claiborne was the first black female pilot employed in the United States Air Force in 1982, who then went on to become the first instructor pilot and air commander. While airlines had a minimum height requirement of 5 foot 4 inches, Claiborne showcased her abilities and challenged the norms despite having a smaller stature (5'2").


Who Is Theresa Claiborne?

Theresa Claiborne was born in 1959 and came from a military background. She attended college at the University of California, Berkeley where she joined the Air Force Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC). Realising her interest to become a pilot, she enrolled at the Laughlin Air Force Base, Texas, to pursue an Undergraduate Pilot Training.

In June 1981, Claiborne was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force. After she graduated from Laughlin in 1982, she became the first black woman to be employed as a pilot in the Force. Claiborne flew KC–135 Stratotankers for Strategic Air Command for seven years, before retiring from active duty in 1988.

Then, Claiborne served as an instructor pilot on the KC-135E and a flight commander for the US Air Force Reserves where she was promoted to the rank of lieutenant colonel. In 1990, she began working for United Airlines as a first officer and was later promoted to Captain. Claiborne retired from the military in 2003 with over 3000 military flight hours.

In 2016, Claiborne co-founded an organization called Sister of the Skies with pilots Christine Angel Hughes and Nia Wordlaw, aiming to support and build a more diverse next generation of aviation professionals by offering workshops, mentorships, and scholarships. In 2017, her name appeared in the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals Hall of Fame.

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Image: Brianna Cabassa

With over 23,000 flight hours, Capt Theresa Claiborne took off on her last flight as a pilot on May 23, 2024. She once told Essence in an interview, “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.”

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