“From the Past to the Present” - Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP) (keynote remarks)

Assistant Administrator for Policy, International Affairs and Environment Laurence S. Wildgoose (January 1, 2021 - present)


Good afternoon, everyone. Thanks, Precious, for the very kind introduction. I am incredibly grateful to be here with you. 

We are here to celebrate black pioneers in aviation. But, before I start, I want to thank the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP) for extending the invitation to join you all today. I also want to give a shout out to Precious Ayelomi and TJ Johnson for their leadership and coordination of this event.

I hope that this seminar has already provided you an immense amount of inspiration. I see that my dynamic colleague, Tash Durkins, has already spoken. I know that she has set the bar high – so, I am certain that I have some pretty big shoes to fill.

Seeing so many young people in the room interested in the aerospace industry is truly an amazing sight. And, if no one has told you yet, you are a really big deal. Not only that, you are also in the right industry because aerospace is taking to new heights! So, if you don’t mind, I’d like to take you on a journey from the past to the present.

The history of black pioneers in aerospace

The history of black aviators in the United States of America is a long and complex story, filled with struggles and triumphs and barriers and breakthroughs. Our stories have been told in many different ways, through songs, poems, books, and films. 

There are so many black trailblazers that have made significant strides in aerospace, not only as pilots and engineers, but also as innovators and leaders. There are men and women who dared to dream of flying, despite the many obstacles that stood in their way. 

They were driven by a deep love of flight, a fierce determination to succeed, and a sense of mission to prove that African Americans were just as capable as anyone else when it came to taking to the skies.

Honoring black pioneers in aerospace

One of the most well-known black aviators was Bessie Coleman, who was born in 1892 in Texas. Despite facing tremendous difficulties, she was determined to become a pilot. 

In 1920, she moved to Chicago and began working as a manicurist, while saving up money to attend flight school. In 1922, she traveled to France to attend the Federation Aeronautique International, where she earned her pilot's license in just seven months, becoming the first African American (male or female) to earn an international pilot's license in France. Bessie returned to the United States, and she quickly became an international sensation. Despite facing discrimination and segregation, Coleman persevered and became a pioneering aviator, known for her daring airshows and bravery, and she became a role model for young black girls everywhere.

Cornelius Coffey was the first African American certified aircraft mechanic in the United States. He, too, carried on the tradition of excellence. As a “transplant” from Arkansas, he graduated at the top of his class in an auto engineering school. Coffey befriended another great aviator, John Robinson, and together, they pursued their passion for flight. They enrolled in Chicago’s Curtiss-Wright School of Aviation, but when they attended the class, they were turned away for being black. However, their employer at the time, threatened to sue the school and the two men had their tuition honored. Coffey graduated the program first in his class, with Robinson graduating second. The school brought both men onboard to teach all-black classes, a milestone both for African American aviation opportunities and for Chicago’s contributions to flight. 

From this class came many of the other African American aviators of Chicago’s black aviation renaissance, including Willa Brown, Janet Bragg, Dale White, among so many others.

Another notable figure is Benjamin O. Davis Jr., who was the first African American to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and become a military pilot. He rose through the ranks and eventually became the commander of the 13th Air Force, responsible for all U.S. air operations in the Pacific during the Vietnam War. In World War II, as commander of the Tuskegee Airmen, Davis faced immense racism and segregation. However, he went on to become a respected leader in the Air Force and later became the first African American Air Force general. 

In 1948, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which desegregated the military. This created more opportunities for African Americans to serve and eventually become commercial pilots. Additionally, the Civil Rights Movement brought about significant changes in the industry. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the FAA began to actively recruit minority candidates, and the number of black pilots began to grow.

One of the most notable black aviators of this period was Captain Robert Harrison, who became the first black pilot to fly for a major airline in 1965. Captain Harrison faced numerous challenges and impediments during his career, but he never let them hold him back. He flew for over 30 years and retired in 1997 as a captain for Delta Air Lines.

In addition to pilots and engineers, black aviators have also made contributions in the fields of space exploration and aeronautics. For example, Guion Bluford was the first African American astronaut to go to space in 1983, and subsequently, Mae Jemison became the first African American woman to travel to space in 1992. 

Thankfully, most of us don’t have to endure what they experienced. Yet, we can look to their examples of bravery, as we pursue our own goals to advance aerospace. These pioneering achievements demonstrate the incredible capabilities and potential of black aviators and serve as an inspiration for future generations. Despite challenges, black aviators have made a lasting impact. 

From the Tuskegee Airmen to the modern-day pilots, who are breaking barriers, their contributions have helped to make the aerospace industry more diverse and inclusive, and black pilots are a vital part. There are many organizations and initiatives aimed at encouraging young people of color to pursue these exciting careers, including Sisters of the Skies, Fly Compton, the Tuskegee Next program, and OBAP, just to name a few.

Present-day innovators

As we cruise through the past and arrive at the present, I’d like to highlight a few recent events that have saluted black pioneers in aerospace.

In 2017, First Officer Dawn Cook discovered that Captain Stephanie Johnson made history as Delta Air Lines’s first black female pilot, and she instantly took action. Cook, an Atlanta-based pilot, reached out to Johnson after she learned that she was flying out of Detroit. Just at the close of Black History Month, the two women took over the flight deck in a groundbreaking moment, becoming Delta's first mainline flight with two African-American female pilots in the flight deck.

Then just last year, Anya Kearns became the youngest black female pilot to fly for the Delta team. Also worth noting is Caleb Smith who is not your average 16-year-old. He is a Prince Georges County, Maryland native who made history last year as the youngest glider pilot in the United States. This past February, Gabriel Carothers from New Mexico became the state’s youngest pilot and the youngest African American in the state to earn his wings.

And, just a few weeks ago, Antoinette Paris-Hudson, a 28-year-old African American pilot, made history as the third black female to become a captain for Pacific Southwest Airlines. Most recently, she received a job offer from one of the largest mainline carriers, American Airlines.

Black executives in aerospace

On the executive front lines, Stephanie C. Hill emerged as an aerospace star. Ms. Hill is the executive vice president of rotary and mission systems for Lockheed Martin Corporation. In her 33-year tenure at the company, she’s held several senior positions, serving as president or vice president for different arms of the business. She is also a champion for women and people of color in STEM careers.

There is also Stephanie Chung, who I’ve gotten a chance to know during my tenure here at the FAA. She started out as a baggage handler at an airline to becoming a vice president of sales at Bombardier, then president at JetSuite, Stephanie has blazed an impressive path in the aerospace industry. Most recently, she served as WheelsUp’s first chief growth officer.

And, while we are still creating black history in the present day, we have to acknowledge that we are truly standing on the shoulders of the giants who have come before us.

Did You Know?

Now, I’d like to play a quick game called Did You Know? Here are a few little known or maybe unknown fun black aerospace facts:

Did you know that the first three black generals in the U.S. Air Force were Tuskegee Airmen? Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., who I mentioned earlier, as well as Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr. and Lucius Theus made history as the first three black generals in the Air Force.

Did you know that NASA astronaut Jessica Watkins was the first black woman to complete a long-term mission aboard the International Space Station with the SpaceX Crew-4 mission team? She logged a total of 170 days in space over her two increments and orbited the earth 2,720 times.

This next person is known as the Godfather of Soul, the hardest working man in show business, the king of funk, and the list goes on. Did you know that James Brown was the first black American to own a private jet? That’s right… the Godfather of Soul purchased a Learjet 23 in 1966.

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge my FAA colleague, Vanessa Blacknall-Jamison, who currently serves as the first non–pilot chair for OBAP’s board of advisors. And, finally, last fall, Dr. Nialah Wilson-Small successfully defended her dissertation and became the first black woman to earn a Ph.D. in aerospace engineering from Cornell University.

How the FAA is leading the charge?

Here at the FAA, we continue to work to bring top-tier talent to the agency and throughout the aerospace industry. This has not been an easy task. But here too, we see that our work is paying off.

Today, we are engaging more with young people in creative ways. We are introducing them to a full range of careers in the aerospace field, and we have a robust, nationwide recruitment strategy to reach diverse, qualified applicants in the areas of STEM and aviation and aerospace, among other disciplines, with student internship opportunities for nearly all educational backgrounds. 

We also offer various entry-level career openings, training, and development programs, as well as full-time roles. One of our newest programs is the Samya Rose Stumo National Air Grant Fellowship Program, which launched its inaugural class just two months ago. The air grant fellowships offer an opportunity for graduate school students in fields related to aerospace to gain experience in how aviation legislation and policy are developed. In fact, the application period for the next class of air grant fellows opens April 1st through April 30th. 


These programs are the result of hard work and intentionality to keep us moving forward and keep fresh talent in our workforce. On January 26th of this year—on Bessie Coleman’s birthday—I joined a cadre of FAA leaders for the first FAA-HBCU Aviation Day. We provided mentoring and career guidance for college and high school students, as part of FAA’s commitment to student engagement with the same interest as OBAP. Events like this are touching the lives of countless young people, and organizations like OBAP continue to help our workforce excel. 

What more can we do to make everyone feel like they can fully engage and contribute? The answer is quite simple: collaboration. When we collaborate, when we challenge each other, we make the whole industry better, safer, and stronger. Just like Cornelius Coffey and John Robinson and First Officer Dawn Cook and Captain Stephanie Johnson.

Thanks for listening, and I look forward to your questions on the panel.