Theresa Claiborne, the First Black Woman Pilot in the U.S. Air Force, Has Retired


May 29, 2024

It’s a great conclusion of a groundbreaking career!

As Captain Theresa Claiborne gracefully landed her final flight at Newark Liberty International Airport on May 23, her journey reached a new destination—the dawn of a legacy inspiring generations to come. Reflecting on her illustrious four decade career, Captain Claiborne shared on each of her social media accounts, “And it’s time for me to park the brakes for the final time on a big airplane.” With her family and friends by her side, she bid farewell to a chapter filled with countless memories and milestones.

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A post shared by Theresa Claiborne (@theresaclaiborne)


The Virginia native grew up with her father in the military, going on to follow in his footsteps. In 1982, she made history as the first Black woman to fly in the United States Air Force at just 22 years old. She would go on to break even more barriers, becoming the first Black woman to serve as a command pilot and instructor for the KC-135, a mid-air refueling jet. In 1990, she transitioned from being a military pilot to a commercial one, joining United Airlines. Despite only being five feet, two inches tall, two inches shorter than the height requirement for commercial aircraft pilots at other airlines, Claiborne went on to become a United Airlines captain.. Now after 43 years as a pilot and more than three decades with United, she’s taken her last flight.

As she walked through the airport one last time in her pilot uniform, Claiborne contemplated the shift awaiting her. “After this, walking through the airport, I won’t have a uniform on…People will just look at me like I’m just a passenger like everyone else; that’ll be a little different,” she shared with CNN, highlighting the bittersweet moment of transition.

Throughout her career, Claiborne was not just a pilot; she was an exemplar of representation and possibility. In a profession where diversity remains a challenge, she stood as a symbol of resilience and determination. “It’s estimated that there are less than 150 Black women pilots in the US, and Claiborne feels a huge responsibility as one of them,” noted CNN.


Her impact extended far beyond the confines of the cockpit. Recognizing the importance of representation, she expressed her commitment to inspiring young Black women. “To still impart that knowledge on young people, and particularly young Black women, that they can do this,” she affirmed.

In her LinkedIn post, Claiborne shared her vision for the future, stating, “I plan to spend my days inspiring young people to follow their dreams by turning them into goals, shattering glass ceilings, and defying all odds.” Her words resonate with the spirit of possibility, encapsulating the essence of her journey from trailblazer to mentor.

Claiborne’s retirement marks the end of a history-making career, but it also signals the beginning of a new chapter—one dedicated to uplifting others and nurturing the aspirations of future trailblazers. “If they can see it, they can be it,” she proclaimed, embodying the belief that representation breeds inspiration.


As Theresa Claiborne bids farewell to the friendly skies, her legacy soars. In her footsteps, a new generation of pilots and trailblazers will rise, guided by her example and inspired by her unwavering commitment to excellence.

Cover photo: The First Black Woman Pilot in the U.S. Air Force Has Retired/ Credit: Theresa Claiborne via Facebook

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