GOODYEAR — Standing on the tarmac at Phoenix Goodyear Airport, more than 3,000 kilometers from her two children, Ricki Foster has chosen to pursue a dream she never thought possible: to become a pilot.
“I didn’t aspire to be a pilot, it wasn’t a path that was open to me in my mind,” Foster said. “I haven’t seen many female pilots, and I certainly haven’t seen any black female pilots at the airline I worked for.”
According to a 2021 Bureau of Labor Statistics report, only 3.9% of airline pilots and flight engineers were black and only 5.3% were women.
Growing up in Jamaica, Foster, 38, thought becoming a flight attendant was her only path to heaven, but even that wasn’t easy. It wasn’t until a friend pushed her to try her luck at becoming a pilot – after more than 10 years as a flight attendant – that she really thought she could take the plunge.
Foster began the journey by trying to obtain his private pilot’s license.
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“I had to quit for financial reasons, but it never left me – it was just in my soul,” Foster recalled. “And I decided, ‘OK, I’m going to make this happen somehow. “”
That dream culminated at the United Aviate Academy, where Foster is one of 30 pilots in training in the inaugural class.
During the first year of the program, students complete their pilot training. Within the next 18 months, they must meet flight hour requirements to obtain airline pilot certification.
United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby said in a statement that the airline hopes to train more than 5,000 pilots over the next decade.
Captain Curtis Brunjes, the academy’s chief executive, explained that the program aims to ensure “an adequate supply of pilots at United” and “to fulfill (the airline’s) commitment to diversity”.
Brunjes said United and JPMorgan Chase are offering $2.4 million in scholarships for freshmen to make the program more financially accessible.
Foster appreciates the program’s commitment to diversity.
“It’s been a male dominated area for a very long time and mostly white males, but our passengers don’t necessarily look like that,” Foster said. “So we are changing it. And I am part of this change.
On a surprisingly cool August night in 1960, William Norwood sat at a red light on the Edmund Pettus Bridge as he returned to Craig Air Force Base near Selma, Alabama. To Norwood’s left were two cars topped with crosses lit by incandescent bulbs.
“I didn’t look at them, but in my peripheral vision I can see the little donkey hats, the little white hats that the (Ku Klux) Klan wore,” said Norwood, who was undergoing advanced pilot training at Craig.
This moment was just one of many that Norwood would experience on his way to becoming United Airlines’ first black pilot in 1965.
His racing journey was more difficult for him than most candidates, he said. Norwood recalled being with his wife and two sons when an airline executive told him, “You can’t afford to tie your shoes the wrong way because they’re looking for a way to fire you. “
His wife, Molly Norwood, also felt the pressure of being the first black family to break the cockpit color barrier at United Airlines.
“You have to be good and you can’t do anything wrong,” she said. “We had to be super skilled.”
The family overcame every obstacle placed in their path and William Norwood spent 31 years with United. Now on display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, one of United’s Boeing 727s is named after William Norwood in honor of his legacy.
Opening the way
In the living room of his Mesa home, which is bathed in warm yellow light, Norwood cries as he watches the video made for his retirement in 1996. As faces and names from his past flash by, recounting how he impacted their lives, Molly Norwood said her husband was always a mentor to others, just as others had helped him on his own journey.
” It’s his passion ; talk to young people,” she said. “You’d be surprised that at 86 young people still call him.”
After retiring from United, Norwood focused on giving back to the next generation of drivers. Whether it’s funding scholarships to his alma mater, Southern Illinois University, visiting schools, or speaking to young students who may one day become pilots, Norwood aims to give others the same support. that he got.
“I do it because when we’ve succeeded, we never succeed on our own,” he said. “So we have to get to the point where we all stand on each other’s shoulders.”
Foster hopes to carry on the legacy for future generations, including her 6-year-old daughter, Marley.
“This inspiration is for all the little girls who could have become a pilot but didn’t think it was possible,” Foster said.
While her daughter’s dreams may not fly like her mother, Foster said the obstacles she overcame to pursue her dream will teach her daughter that anything is possible.
“What she’ll learn from watching me is that she can be anything she wants to be, she can accomplish any goal,” Foster said. “And of course there are obstacles, but there are always ways to overcome them.”