Over a century ago, trailblazing aviator Bessie Coleman made history as the first Black woman to obtain an international pilot’s license; a pivotal moment that inspired generations of women to launch careers in aviation. Amongst those standing on Coleman’s shoulders is Chicago-raised United Airlines Captain M’lis Ward who has set out on a mission to increase representation in the space, CBS Denver reported.
The aviation industry has historically been a white male-dominated field. Research shows less than 1 percent of pilots in the United States are Black women. For Ward—a pioneer in her own right who was the first Black woman captain in commercial passenger aviation—she’s using her path to show individuals from marginalized communities that there’s space for them in the industry.
She’s working with United Airlines to advance its Aviate Academy initiative. The career development program, which launched earlier this year, was created to address the country’s pilot shortage and increase racial and gender representation within the realm of aviation. Through the initiative, United aims to train 5,000 pilots by 2030.
Ward—who was drawn to flying while serving in the military—says ensuring that individuals from underrepresented groups have a seat at the table starts with exposure and education. “It really does create a pathway for those that would have never had that opportunity in the first place,” she shared in a statement, according to the news outlet. “We have to give some deference to people who normally would not have that opportunity. Whether it is because of exposure or financial ability. We have to get young Black girls interested in flying.” Ward will celebrate her 30th United Airlines anniversary later this year.
Aviate Academy is one of a few programs that has been cultivated to diversify the industry. Inspired by the Tuskegee Airmen, the New York-based flight school RedTail Flight Academy is empowering the next generation of pilots of color.