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Ode to a flight pioneer

By Matt Adams

With all she's seen and done over a century on this earth, some of Betty Stockard's fondest memories are of the years she spent slipping its surly bonds.

Seventy-seven birthdays have passed since she took to the skies for United as one of the first non-nurse flight attendants in our history, but you wouldn't know it talking with her today as she prepares to celebrate her 100th birthday. Betty's recollections of that time, when she was a 23-year-old searching for excitement and a life to call her own, are crystal clear, her stories conjuring a vivid, gorgeous image of the golden era of aviation.

Born near Kalispell, Montana, on May 16, 1919 as Elizabeth Jean Riley, becoming an aviation pioneer was the furthest thing from Betty's mind growing up. As she recalled, her only brushes with flight back then occurred when the occasional small airplane would appear in the sky above the family homestead. But following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Betty, like most Americans, wanted to contribute to the war effort. She packed her bags, moved to Seattle and took an administrative job at the Boeing plant where thousands of bombers would soon roll off the assembly lines.

She had been there for about two months when she saw an item in the Seattle Times announcing United was looking for a new crop of flight attendants. For years, airlines had only hired nurses into those roles, but with more and more of them now needed in combat zones, that was no longer the case. Despite having never stepped foot on an airplane, Betty applied.

What followed was a whirlwind. After meeting with United personnel managers in Seattle, she took her first-ever flight for a second round of interviews in San Francisco. Two weeks later she received a telegram instructing her to report to Chicago, where she joined 24 other women from across the country for six weeks of intense training, heavy on first aid and safety.

"The instructors told us not to smile much because it was a serious job," remembered Betty. "They wanted us to maintain a professional attitude.
"But the stuff about not smiling didn't last long once I was on an airplane myself."

As Betty put it, being a stewardess in those days was nearly on par with being a movie star, and she often rubbed shoulders with celebrities and dignitaries, like First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and silver screen idol Clark Gable, on her trips up and down the West Coast. But it wasn't all glitz and glamour and grins.

Flight attendants in the mid-1940s were just as busy serving their country as they were serving their customers. United flew many military men during World War II, and flight crews were responsible for looking after them. And, at least in Betty's case, those wartime duties included a little intrigue as well.

In the summer of 1945, after checking in for a flight from San Francisco to Seattle, her dispatcher told her that two men from the U.S. Army were waiting for her in the next room. They handed Betty a small, brown package and instructed her to pin it inside her jacket until she arrived in Seattle, where another Army representative would meet her. In the meantime, they warned, she was not to open the parcel or tell anyone she had it.

The aircraft landed in Seattle just after 2 a.m. and taxied to a dark corner of the airfield. There, a military man came on board, took the package, and promptly departed, leaving Betty to wonder what she had just been part of.

Secret missions aside, Betty was smitten with life in the air. She'll still tell you it was the best job in the world. Soon, though, she found herself equally smitten with a handsome former fighter pilot by the name of Ray Stockard, whom she met during a flight in 1946.

Ray was traversing the country interviewing for jobs with commercial airlines, and the two hit it off immediately, beginning a courtship shortly after. Betty adored Ray, but it was a bittersweet romance, for she knew if she got married she'd be trading one love for another since, at that time, stewardesses had to be single.

Alas, the heart wants what it wants, and Betty and Ray, who by that time was flying for Pan American, set a wedding date. Originally, they were to wed in May of 1947, but that spring, United announced it would begin service to Honolulu that summer. Betty talked Ray into briefly postponing the nuptials so that she could enjoy her last months as a flight attendant on the Hawaiian route.

"I hated giving up flying, but I knew I was making the right move," she said. "I was looking forward to the next chapter."

Fortunately, marrying a pilot meant she didn't have to walk away from the industry altogether. In the years that followed, she, Ray and their four children – Joe, Denise, Ed and Dick – traveled the world together. And while they did most of that flying on Pan Am, Betty never lost her soft spot for United, the airline where it all started. She still flies United, in fact, and still enjoys meeting flight attendants on her journeys, though she rarely, if ever, tells them about her past, preferring instead to ask them questions about themselves.

When you are lucky enough to get her talking about herself, though, she doesn't disappoint. Betty's stories are riveting, and she's been known to dispense a kernel of wisdom or two if pressed. So, what's the best advice she gives after 100 years of a rich, full life? Value education and relationships above all else, travel as much as possible, and be fearless in your pursuits.

"It's been such a good life," she said. "I couldn't have asked for a more interesting career. I still carry with me the memories of the people I met on airplanes and the places I went. If there's a lesson there, it's that you should get out and do things and not be afraid to try. By doing that, I've had one of the best lives ever."
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Ms. Fix-it

By Matt Adams

Yolanda Gong had been awaiting this challenge all day. As fellow competitors looked on, she took a pipette and carefully removed lubricant from a jet engine, then injected it into a handheld machine to analyze its viscosity, a process that aircraft maintenance technicians use to gauge an engine's health. She moved quickly with a steady hand and steely confidence, and if you watched her closely, you would have caught a glimpse of who she was, back in a laboratory in another life, when she was living someone else's dream.

Each participant was allotted 15 minutes, which was 11 minutes and 44 seconds longer than Gong needed. It was the fastest time recorded at last spring's Aerospace Maintenance Competition – which draws civilian, military and student technicians from all over the country, all vying for coveted bragging rights – where she captained the team from West Los Angeles College. The oil analysis was just one event in which she and her teammates competed over the course of three days, during which Gong impressed a lot of people, including the members of United's all-female "Chix Fix" team, who were also there.

"When I saw her on stage receiving awards, I knew Yolanda would make a good addition to the United team, not to mention a strong competitor for Chix Fix," says United's San Francisco-based Airframe Overhaul and Repair Managing Director Bonnie Turner. "Her professionalism and talent caught my attention that day, and I've been thrilled to have her as a technician."

In September, after earning her airframe and powerplant license, Gong was hired by United to work at its San Francisco maintenance base as an Aircraft Interior Repair Tech. To Gong, meeting Turner and the women of Chix Fix was serendipity; a chance encounter that led to a life-changing opportunity. But that's not entirely true. She might have been in the right place at the right time, but make no mistake – her success is a byproduct of effort and ability. She's doing what she was meant to do, though it took her traveling an unconventional path to get to this place of self-realization.

Growing up, Gong's mother and father steered her toward a more genteel career. In their minds, she would become a doctor or a lawyer. In other words, something "suitable for a woman," a notion that rankled their mechanically-inclined daughter. In the end, Gong settled on medicine for many of the same reasons she would eventually move into aircraft maintenance.

"I was interested in how the body works," she says. "I like systems and puzzles, looking at causes and effects."

She completed her pre-med studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, but when it came time to take the MCAT and apply to medical school, Gong found herself at a crossroads. She realized her own goals were more important than the ones someone else had set for her, and she certainly wasn't going to let something like expectations based on gender stand in her way. After some soul searching, she enrolled in West Los Angeles College's aviation technology program, where she was one of only four women in a class of around 30 students.

"I've always wanted to know how to use tools and do things for myself," says Gong. "And I never paid attention when someone told me, 'You can't do that.' I've always said, 'Well, let me try.'"

Over the past few months since graduating, Gong has been a rising star at United. She's even set to return to the Aerospace Maintenance Competition in April, this time as part of team Chix Fix, where she and her colleagues plan to show what they can do.

"It's likely there will be a shortage of technicians soon," Gong says, "so I want to make sure women know opportunities are here for them. Don't let anyone tell you what you can or can't love. The only thing stopping you from doing what you want is your belief in yourself. It's incredibly freeing when you stop caring what other people think and just do it."
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Blazing a path to flight deck for African-American girls

By Ryan Hood

Houston-based pilot Nia Wordlaw aims to inspire the next generation.

In high school, she didn't ditch class for a baseball game or time at the beach like other Chicago-area youth – she skipped school for a complete stranger's funeral. And it's the best decision she's ever made.

Earlier in the week, Nia's high school history teacher had shown her an obituary for Janet Bragg in the Chicago Tribune. Bragg, the first African-American woman to hold a commercial pilot license, lived in Chicagoland and had passed at the age of 86.

Nia, who'd been determined since she was 10 to become a pilot, knew she needed to attend. She needed someone she could identify with. Even if that someone was dead.

"I went just to see a black female pilot," she said. "I'd never seen one before."

It was a closed-coffin funeral. Wordlaw was crushed.

As she was about to leave, she spotted an African-American female in a pilot uniform.

"I came here to see a dead one, but even better, I saw a live one," she remembers thinking to herself. Nia approached her and started a conversation.

"She came right up to me. Her enthusiasm is what captured my attention," said Stayce Harris, the pilot Nia had spotted who's now a United First Officer and the Lieutenant General of the U.S. Air Force. "She was the first young lady of color I had met who shared she wanted to be a pilot since she was a little girl."

Ms. Harris has mentored Nia ever since. It's no coincidence Nia's 8-year-old daughter's middle name is Stayce.

***

A 10-year-old African-American girl deciding to become a pilot is not what people normally heard where Nia grew up, but her parents supported her journey every step of the way.

Nia's confidence in her ability to reach the skies grew after her mom stopped by the local library. She brought home an article on micro film for Nia to read – it was about Bessie Coleman, the first black woman to earn a pilot's license. Coleman had passed more than 50 years prior, but Nia considers Coleman to be her first mentor. She kept the Bessie Coleman article by her nightstand and still has it to this day.

"If Bessie can do this back then, there's no reason I can't do this now," Nia recalls being her mindset.

She proved herself right. Her family moved to a different suburb so she could attend Oak Park-River Forest High School, purely so she could take an aviation science class her junior year. Additionally, she took summer school courses allowing her to graduate early, which ultimately meant a quicker arrival into the flight deck. Four years later, she graduated from Southern Illinois University and has been with United since 2005. She's since made it her goal to encourage others who look like her to follow in her contrails.

"People need to see themselves actually working in different positions so they know this can indeed be done and that you won't be alone in doing it," says Nia now a First Officer for United.

To help encourage more African-American females to pursue careers as pilots, in 2017 Nia co-founded Sisters of the Skies, a non-profit organization that cultivates and promotes minority women in the industry through scholarship, mentorship and emotional support.

Currently, there are less than 150 African-American female pilots in the United States holding Airline Transport Pilot, Commercial, Military, and/or Certified Flight Instructor Licenses. Nia's goal is to inspire more.

Houston-based United Flight Attendant Patricia Pratt received a scholarship through Sisters of the Skies as she works to earn her commercial pilot's license.

"The mentorship that group has given me is priceless," Pratt said, "and I owe so much of that to Nia. When I think of her, I think of a cheerleader. She's always promoting aviation, encouraging us and is always available for us if we need anything."

***

The sight of planes taxiing across the alpha and bravo bridge at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport is forever ingrained in Nia's mind.

Growing up just south of O'Hare, Nia remembers her parents frequently driving on the roadway beneath the bridge often as a kid. She wondered where were the planes going and knew she wanted to be wherever they were going. Watching planes at the airport sparked her interest in aviation, and there was no better view than the one from under the bridge.

Nia began with United flying the 737, moved to the 757/767, transitioned to the 787 and then, last year, the 777 fleet. Her test flight on the 777's destination? O'Hare.

"I'd dreamed about being on those planes since I was a little girl, and now here I am taking my new aircraft to its gate right over that very bridge," Nia says. "That was a moment. Oh, yes. That was a moment. I had chills."

She joked there's 'no crying in aviation', but she did admit to holding back tears of joy at that moment.

Something else that may cause tears of joy? An increase in African-American females piloting commercial aircraft.

"People often ask me how many pilots like me there are – the answer is not many," Nia says. "This is a tremendous career that's been everything I could've ever hoped and dreamed for.

"I'd ask the next generation this: Do you see me? Because I look like you. You can do this, too."

The sky can be more than a dream

By Ryan Hood

Ask Randall Rochon about his first flight and you'll come away thinking the plane just arrived at its destination.

How old were you?

"Nine."

Where did you go?

"Lafayette, Louisiana to Houston and then to Seattle. My mom and I went to visit my dad, who was looking at potential new homes in Washington.

"We flew on a Continental ATR."

Wait – you even remember the aircraft type?

"Yes – we flew on a Continental ATR to Houston and then an Airbus 300 to Seattle," he explains. "I asked my mom questions the entire time."

How fast was the plane going down the runway? How does it take off? How high does the plane go? How fast are they going when they land? The nine-year-old boy was fascinated by aviation.

That fascination soon became an obsession, and that obsession eventually became a career. Randall Rochon, a Newark-based Boeing 767 and 757 First Officer, has worked at United for six years, achieving a goal that dated back to those very first flights as a nine-year-old: he wanted to work where it all began.

Randall is extremely grateful for his dream having come true, but he's quick to deflect credit in the direction of others who helped him along the way.

"This industry, aviation, you cannot do this alone," Randall says. "I didn't do it alone."

To start, there's Clovis Jones, then-President of OBAP (Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals) who put a high school-aged Randall in touch with Western Michigan University when searching for a scholarship. Then, there's Tony Dennis, who was Western Michigan's Director of Recruitment at the time, who helped Randall and whom he now considers to be a second father. There are Captains Corey Shepard, Leo Sherman, Donald Turner and Assistant Chief Pilot Ray-Sean Silvera who all mentored him at prior steps in his career. There's retired United Captain Roscoe Edwards, who took him under his wing like a little brother once he arrived at United. The list goes on and on.

These are just some of the many influences that got Randall to where he is today and he is eternally grateful for them all. They're also the reasons he is so passionate about helping the next generation of pilots. He is currently the Vice Chair for OBAP, where he's also the director of the collegiate program, helping aspiring aviators achieve their goals.

"The work I do within and outside of OBAP is important to me because many minorities, especially African-American individuals, look to the skies and dream," Randall says. "They dream about being on that plane in the sky. Their minds wonder about what space is like and they think of what it would be like to travel to a different place. This is what drives me to keep doing what I do. Many of these individuals do not know how to find those answers. I want these young minds to know that there is a whole world out there waiting for them."

In addition to his work with OBAP, he has run ACE Camps in Michigan, New York, St. Croix and St. Thomas over the last six years.

ACE Camps are week-long events that connect high school students with the opportunity to explore a wide variety of aviation careers through hands on projects, tours and flight experience.

"Ever since I got that scholarship at Western Michigan, it's been my mission to give back to the community," Randall says. "We need to continue making minorities aware of this opportunity, because if you can help them achieve that dream, then the world is at their fingertips and the sky has no limit.

"I was fortunate. Aviation has been life-changing for me, so I want to change the lives of others as well."

A last chance to say goodbye

By Gladys Roman

Customer Kelly Hoover was living her worst nightmare. She was traveling from Las Vegas, Nevada to Cleveland, Ohio to see her dying father on January 28.

"The night before, I was talking on the phone with him for about 15 minutes, and then my mom told me something was wrong with him, that he wasn't responding," remembered Mrs. Hoover. "So I told my mom to call 911, and she got him to the hospital really quick. The next morning I got a call from one of my brothers telling me that my dad had had a heart attack, and doctors were saying he wasn't going to make it."

Mrs. Hoover immediately booked a flight from Las Vegas, connecting in Chicago before arriving in Cleveland, but she was traveling at the same time the polar vortex was impacting the Midwest, disrupting many of our flights, including hers. Her flight was diverted to Indianapolis, and there was a big possibility she wasn't going to make it in time to see her father and say goodbye.

Customer Kelly Hoover and her father

Desperate to get to her destination, Mrs. Hoover shared her story with one of the flight attendants, who in response connected her with Cleveland-based Airport Communications Technician Gregg Wirth, who she knew was traveling with his wife Debbie after visiting their son and grandchildren in Las Vegas. The Wirths were contemplating driving to Cleveland, and once they learned about Mrs. Hoover's situation, they didn't hesitate to offer her a ride and take her straight to the hospital.

"I hadn't slept for 24 hours and was very stressed and in no condition to drive," said Mrs. Hoover. "Gregg and Debbie were like angels that God placed for me, because He knew I needed to get to my dad to get that final closure with him."

For Gregg and Debbie, helping Mrs. Hoover, even though they didn't know her, was simply the right thing to do. "It was just humane," said Gregg. "My wife is a nurse, and she was comforting her the entire way. We took her right up to the hospital where we arrived right after 2 a.m."

"Because of Gregg and Debbie, I was able to spend seven hours with my dad by myself," said Mrs. Hoover. "I was able to hold his hand until my brothers came and we decided to take him off life support after the doctors told us we didn't have a lot of options."

Although, Mrs. Hoover is still grieving her loss, she finds comfort in knowing that she found two great friends during what she will always remember as one of the saddest days of her life.

"I'll always treasure that time that I got with my dad thanks to Gregg and Debbie," Mrs. Hoover added. "Today, I'm happy to call them my friends, and, coincidentally, their son lives a few blocks from my house, which is one of the reasons why I think they're angels God sent me."

20 million miles and counting...

By The Hub team

On November 7, while flying from Newark Liberty International Airport to Los Angeles International Airport, United customer Tom Stuker made history when he reached 20 million miles flown on a single airline. We were fortunate enough to capture the milestone he reached with us.

To mark the special occasion, we hosted a celebration in Mr. Stuker's honor at the United Polaris lounge at O'Hare International Airport on Saturday. The celebration was delayed a couple of months, so Mr. Stuker could celebrate the event with his family.

The party included a room full of employees, media members and Mr. Stuker's friends and family enjoying food, cocktails, stories and laughs. To thank him for his long-standing loyalty to United, we also presented Mr. Stuker with gifts made specially for him.

"United makes my dreams come true," Mr. Stuker said to the room full of people.

He also praised United's MileagePlus program, the United Polaris lounges across our system and Oscar's leadership of the airline but, most of all, he praised the service he receives from our employees.

"My favorite part of United is the people. United is such a big part of my life…you are a family to me," he said addressing the United employees. "It would take me days and days and days to say thank you in the right way to the right people. They all know me by now and know how much I care about them as people, how much I care about this airline and its success, and how much I care about the greatest leader this airline has ever had, Oscar."
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