Flying, as a mode of transportation, has become normalized since June 15, 1921, the day Bessie Coleman, the first Black woman to do so, earned her international pilot’s license. However, almost 102 years later, ABC News reported that there are “less than 150 professional Black women pilots in the U.S. that hold airline transport pilot, commercial, military or certificated flight instructor certificates.”
United Aviate Academy and multimedia host Kellee Edwards are determined to change the fact that “women make up just 5.6%, with Black women representing less than 1% of that total,” a revelation that was shared by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2020.
The airline’s aviation academy opened its doors in Goodyear, Arizona in 2021 to student pilots of which the majority of—80% that is— were women or people of color. United, along with JPMorgan Chase & Co., are committed to investing in future aviators through scholarship funding of roughly $2.4 million. Abby Awosanya is one of those students who benefited from the joint initiative.
Edwards visited the flight school for Women’s History Month to celebrate students, share her journey and shower them with encouragement.
Piloting is not for the faint at heart, and when a Black woman occupies the cockpit, just know she is the purveyor of ancestors’ wildest dreams. MADAMENOIRE sat with Edwards to discuss her passion for adventure and her motivation to take flight.
MADAMENOIRE: The first thing I want to ask is what does this partnership and initiative with United Aviate Academy mean to you, particularly during Women’s History Month?
The fact that women pilots are so underrepresented in the industry and United has literally given them a pipeline to be able to fly for a major commercial airline is so beautiful. When I learned to fly 10 years ago, I didn’t have a support system like that. I didn’t even know that you can go and learn to fly planes at flight schools. I thought you had to be in the military. So, the world that is available and accessible to them right now is incredible. Being able to be here during a woman’s history month … I am a huge advocate and supporter of Betsy Coleman in her story as a Black female pilot who people always forget that she got her pilot’s license one year before Amelia Earhart in 1921 and everyone speaks about Amelia Earhart.
—And not to take anything away from Amelia because I love her as well, but to be a Black and Native American woman wanting to learn to fly an airplane in the 1920s, the circumstances, the way we were treated, and still to this day, the things we have to overcome is man. I couldn’t even imagine what she went through. I think she would be very proud to see, over 100 years later, that there are easier, more accessible ways for women and women of color to be able to also take to the sky right.
I like when I’m able to deviate from questions and interviews become a conversation. You’re an adventurer. All of the things that you’ve explored, many people don’t know about those places or that half of those things exist.
Oh, for sure. Yeah.
Where does one find curiosity? Or what was your source of curiosity?
I grew up as an only child, and one thing you have to do as an only child is entertain yourself. That course in my life made me deep dive into any and everything that made me curious. I read a lot of books. I was technically the weird kid growing up, like, everyone’s playing with their bikes and I’m riding a unicycle. Literally, that was me. I feel like the fact that I had to entertain myself at such a young age and I found joy in the things that I was learning on my own through exploration. It just never stopped. And I feel like I had a great support system with my mom and dad, who made it a point to foster anything that I was interested in, whether it’s being outside. I also played basketball; I ran track.
I think just being a curious only child never left me. When I got older, when you have the ability to make your own decisions, not like things that parents suggest or foster or whatever, I was just like, holy schmucks, there is an entire world out here, and there’s no one telling me what I can and can’t do. That’s where I feel privileged. Like, I appreciate the journeys that African American people, and women specifically have come before me. But now in the you can’t tell me I can’t do anything. I’m going to show up and do whatever I want. I dare you to try to stop me.
I feel like I allow my curiosity to turn into a superpower. When you say people are like, oh, I didn’t even know that existed, or you can do that, I didn’t either, but I went and found out. I’m a super believer of I know for a fact that tomorrow is not promised, because I’ve dealt with so much loss in my life that I feel like if I left today, I want people to be able to say, Kelly lived her life, she explored everything, and she left no stone unturned.
I love it. I love it. So, there’s a fear of swimming in the Black community and certainly a significant fear of flying.
What are the steps? How does one pilot? Share the process?
Sure. So, the first thing that I suggest people do is take a discovery flight. The way to take a discovery flight is to look up a local flight school anywhere in the area so you don’t have to look at the major airport. There are so many little, small, general aviation airports is what they’re called. In major and small cities across the country. You pay anywhere from $100-$150. You go with the flight instructor; you take 30 to 45 minutes flight. From there, you can continue to take lessons to get your licenses. So, there’s a series of license you can get.
You can start with a sports license, which is maybe around 20 hours. To get a private pilot’s license, you need a minimum of 40 hours, but the national average is about 65 hours. To get that from private pilot, you can go on to getting instrument rated, commercially rated, which is something like United Airlines provides. It’s also called an ATP, which is an airline transport pilot. So that’s basically the path that you can take if you’re not in the military, by going to a flight school, signing up for lessons, and doing the steps like that or you can literally connect with a program like Aviate.
Aviate works with several different organizations like OBAP, which is the organization of Black aerospace professionals.They work with Sisters of the Skies Pilots Association. There are so many people, and I feel like those communities are a great place to start, too, because I didn’t know who to talk to. I explored this on my own. And I feel like if you start within an organization, they will also help lead the path to places like this.
So let me ask about elevation. You talked about these like, increments of hours.
Is their increment in elevation? Like, do you start at like 5,000ft?
It depends on the aircraft and the skill set that you have. Right. So, like, the planes that are here, I believe they’re serious SR200s. I think they can go to a max of 17,500ft, which seems high, but then you get into 737 and you’re 36,000ft in the air.
That’s a different level of flying. And so just like the licenses the planes grow, the more you are able to fly in different territories. We call it airspaces.
There’s a myth that Black girls don’t do half of the things that you do when it comes to travel and exploration. Can you speak to that?
Absolutely. So, when people say, we don’t do that, and I’m going to get real serious here, please do. It comes with oftentimes within our own community, it’s very important for us to not worry about what our grandmothers did, what our mothers did, what our aunties and cousins did. If there is anything, as a Black woman that you want to do and be curious about, you owe that responsibility to yourself in the life that you’re living to make the choice to go try it.
I have always been, like I said, the different kids, the different adult’s woman that I am now, that has been very beneficial for me. I’ve learned more about who I am because of the risks I’ve taken and not having anyone to guide me. It’s made me I don’t know how to say it without saying crape, sounding bad. I didn’t know how far I could go until I challenged myself. I always tell people, you got to really block out the noise because the number one thing that I’ve learned is that people don’t necessarily have bad intentions of not wanting you to do things. They’re projecting their own fears on you.
But you’re the one left with that. Right?
Right. I feel like you have to not take the outside chatter and talk personally. You need to focus and you need to live your life. I mean that so when we don’t fly, we don’t get our hair. Actually, I invented a travel hair kit so that Black women can get in the water okay. Fix their hair and be right and go on about their life. Because that’s another thing. When they see me, they don’t expect me to be the pilot, the diver, the mountaineer, the world traveler doing all that stuff, because I come in a package that looks like thank you, and I’m just like, yeah, I got my red lipstick. I got my French nails, like, I got my hills.
But at the end of the day, I’m going to get it in right. I live a very dual lifestyle, and I feel like we’re also multifaceted. I dare someone to put me in a box. So as Black women, you know how we do. We’re very confident. We’re very bold. We’re very fearless. Why do we stop when someone tells us that we don’t do that? Who doesn’t do that? Just because you don’t do it doesn’t mean that I don’t do it. And I’m a Black woman, so that means we do it right?
That part, yeah. And what’s next?
I have lots of projects in the pipeline. I’m actually working on a new show involving aviation. I can’t speak too much about it now. Going to change the game on what you can do in an airplane at the general aviation level.
All right, well, we’ll be watching.
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