Theresa M. Claiborne has had a great career since graduating from Sacramento State nearly three decades ago. No sooner did she receive her bachelor’s degree than the newly commissioned Air Force second lieutenant headed for pilot training at Laughlin AFB, Texas. Upon earning her wings in 1982, Lt. Claiborne became the first African-American female pilot for the USAF.
As such, she joined the ranks of black women pilots whose heritage dates back to Bessie Coleman, who flew over the mountains of France; Willa Brown, the first black female to obtain a commercial pilot’s license; and Patrice Clark-Washington, who became the first black woman captain of a major airline. Claiborne, who spent most of her active-duty years as a KC-135 pilot and instructor, is one of the few females who currently flies commercial passenger aircraft.
She’s served as first officer and co-pilot with United Airlines since 1990. As second in command of the Boeing 747-400, one of the largest commercial aircraft, Claiborne is acutely aware of her responsibility. The skill, precision and coordination to be a successful pilot, she says, come via hard work and experience. Nor has it been easy for a female to crack the glass ceiling of a male-dominated profession. “You need to be mentally strong when you get that look from fellow aviators,” she told Ebony Magazine several years ago, “wondering what you are doing here.” Claiborne remembers being mistaken for a skycap by a woman passenger who tried to hand the pilot her luggage.
Undaunted, the determined young lady has successfully navigated every challenge she has encountered. “We didn’t have girls’ sports teams at Elk Grove High School when I first arrived as a sophomore,” she says, “so I played on the boys’ soccer squad.” Because the nearest AFROTC program was at Berkeley, she made the once- weekly trip to the Bay Area and completed her military course work that would culminate in her commissioning.
She recalls her flight training at Laughlin as challenging in several respects. It was tough enough being one of the only African-American female trainees, but “I was short to boot” she chuckles. Claiborne had plenty of doubts, she concedes “because I made my share of mistakes in busting a ride.” But she hastens to add that her instructors “were outstanding” and helped her through “the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
From Laughlin she went to Castle, AFB in Atwater, California, and learned to fly tankers. Assigned to the Strategic Air Command’s 93rd Bombardment Wing at Castle, she served four years followed by two more years at Loring AFB, Maine on active duty before transitioning to the reserves in 1988 where she remained until 2003.
Col. Paul Bonnier, who commanded the 940th Air Refueling Group at Beale AFB, recalls pushing through the paperwork for Claiborne’s promotion to lieutenant colonel in 2001. “She is quite a lady,” he says, adding that her picture is on the wall at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, the site from which yet another airborne pioneer, Charles Lindbergh, departed on the Spirit of St. Louis for his trans-Atlantic flight to Paris in 1927.
“I was on the dean’s list seven of my eight semesters at Sacramento State as a Communications and Journalism major,” she says, adding that she took as little math and science as possible. This came back to haunt her at Laughlin where “I was studying while most of my classmates were out having a good time.” This explains why, when she speaks to groups, she stresses the importance of a well-rounded education.
Meantime, Theresa Claiborne remains a mainstay with United Airlines, flying routes primarily throughout the Pacific. The Sacramento State alum exudes the same grit and determination that prompted her to become the Air Force’s first African-American female pilot. “I love flying,” she says with the conviction that comes from daring to defy the odds and succeeding.
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