Thursday, May 12 American Airlines hosted its inaugural Legacy of Firsts event dedicated to honoring Black aviators and the founding fathers of the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP).
In 1964, Capt. Dave Harris joined American, becoming the first Black pilot for a major passenger airline. Along with Capt. Sam Samuels, the pair of pilots famously helped form the Soul Patrol — the first all-Black flight crew that often flew together in the 1980s.
The airline has a history of firsts.
In 1994, Capt. Sidney Clark became the first Black chief pilot at U.S. Airways.
The three history makers were honored at the event for breaking barriers into the world of aviation and paving the path for future Black pilots.
This event was the culmination of a dream both Harris and Samuels thought was possible dating back to 1964.
In an interview with Ebony Magazine in 1986, Harris told a reporter he was worried at that time there wouldn’t be enough black pilots hired to replace the 30 who were eligible to become captains.
Fast-forward to May 12, where there is a surplus of black pilots, such as Capt. Beth Powell.
Powell serves as the Lead for the Flight Inclusion Team and said being in the room with those who paved the way for current and upcoming black pilots made her feel a range of emotions.
“To be there with Capt. Samuels, Capt. Harris, Capt. Clark Jr. was a combination of historical, exceptional, majestic, emotional, was very touching and heartwarming,” she said. “To have these legends there so we could actually say thank you for paving the way while they are still with us meant everything to us.”
Before Powell knew she would be a pilot, curiosity and the support of her parents led her on a path of “becoming” while growing up in Jamaica.
Her father was “super ambitious” as she described him.
Although he did not finish high school because he needed to work to support his family, he did so by working three jobs.
Powell’s mother did finish high school and wanted to be a nurse, but Growing up in Jamaica, she followed the path laid before her in becoming a wife and having three daughters.
Because her mother did not get to see her dreams come to fruition, she poured the love of education into Powell and her sisters.
“She made sure we became – she made sure she did whatever it took to give us an education so that we could ‘become,’” Powell said.
Powell met a teacher when she was 15 years old who was fascinated by her problem-solving skills and figuring out difficult math questions.
While she did not understand initially why the teacher was so enamored by her, Powell’s precociousness led her to the position she is in today based on her curiosity.
“I looked at him when I was 15 and said, ‘you’re so excited about me loving numbers, what does that mean?’”
He replied, “are you kidding me? You can become a pilot or engineer mechanic.”
“That tap on the shoulder was what I needed to become because I wouldn’t know what else I could do with loving math,” Powell said.
After going to Wings Jamaica Flight School and getting on a plane going 80 miles per hour down the runway was when she felt herself connect with an airplane for the first time.
It was the awareness of the teacher and the support of her parents that led Powell on her journey to becoming a pilot.
Powell’s journey, like most who choose a certain career field, began with support of her parents and a teacher that saw something in her that she didn’t see in herself.
When looking to the next generation of pilots, while the journey won’t be similar, the steps to become a successful pilot are similar; belief from mentors and supporters who are looking to groom the next generation.
Her position as Lead of the Flight Inclusion Team helps to provide a holistic experience from the ground up.
Those experiences start with the American Airlines Cadet program.
The program includes finances, mentoring, starting with speaking to youth about the possibilities that exist to one day become a pilot and guiding them throughout the process it takes to achieve their dreams in this field, Powell said.
One of the most important things about the success of diversity of pilots was the support American Airlines has provided. The company, Powell said, is walking the walk and placing actions behind their words.
“I am so proud to work for this company, you have no idea,” she said. “In 1964, when Dave Harris came to work for American Airlines and applied and did an interview and they said, ‘you were hired, he had to call them back and say, “hey, do you recognize I’m a black pilot?” Harris asked.
American’s response was: “We don’t care the color of your skin, can you fly an airplane?” they asked.
Powell said the airline has created a culture that has been intentional around diversity and qualified, diverse candidates.
The airline created a Flight Inclusion Council to listen to the pilots concerns about how they could continue to improve their efforts, they also created programs to retain qualified, diverse hires, while enhancing training efforts.
“There is a lot more work to be done, but I’m just so proud of the foundational work we have done to have really meaningful and sustainable change,” Powell said.
American currently has 600 cadets in its Cadet Academy today — and many graduates already working in the flight deck.
The airline continues to grow the program, significantly impacting the diverse makeup of flight crews industrywide.