Meet our first African American woman pilot
Retired First Officer Shirley Suber (formerly Tyus) never intended to be a symbol of progress. It's not like she purposely set out to become our first African American woman pilot. She just wanted to fly airplanes.
Nevertheless, Shirley was thrust into the spotlight the day she received her pilot's wings in 1987. Along with them came the unofficial title of cultural vanguard, a woman to whom other African American women could point and say, "If she can do it, so can I."
As you can imagine, getting there wasn't always easy. There were the instructors who didn't want to train her because of her race and her gender. There was scrutiny and there was criticism. But talk with Shirley, and you won't hear any complaints. "Why would I want to think about the bad things?" she'll ask, reminding you that her good memories far outweigh her bad ones. "At times, the pain was a bit much, but it was the best job in the world."
Her story began in Kansas City in 1971 during a trip to the airport to pick up a friend. In the terminal, she noticed a sign that said United was hiring flight attendants.
"I bounced into the inflight office and blurted out, 'I want to be a stewardess for the friendly skies!'" Shirley recalled with a smile. She was only kidding, but she took the hiring manager's business card anyway. Six months later, looking for a change, she gave him a call. That time she was serious. In 1972, she completed training and began working as a United flight attendant based at Washington-Dulles.
She loved the job from the start, but soon Shirley found herself spending more and more time in the front of the plane, asking the pilots questions. One day, a pilot asked her why, if she liked the flight deck so much, she didn't get her license.
It was the first time the idea had ever dawned on her, and in 1977, she gave it a shot. Shirley trained on her days off, and within a couple of years she had her commercial certification. Her heart was set on flying for United, but Shirley needed more flight hours if she wanted to be taken seriously. That's when she found her way to Wheeler Flying Service.
Founded in 1969 by Warren Wheeler, the cargo carrier was the first black-owned airline in the United States and a rich training ground for African American pilots. When she finished her last trip as a flight attendant each week, Shirley would drive from her home near Washington, D.C., to Raleigh, North Carolina, where Wheeler was based, and fly cargo runs. She did this for the next few years, balancing the side gig with her full-time job at United and motherhood, before finally getting the call for which she had waited so long.
Flying in the big leagues for us was everything that she had dreamt it would be. Even now, a decade after retiring, she holds onto the sense of awe that she felt piloting those big jets. And she still has a hard time believing that just by chasing that feeling, she became a role model for so many.
"When I look back on it, I sort of forget that I opened a door," said Shirley. "I wasn't trying to break any barriers or anything like that. For me, it was just the passion of flying. When you push that pedal and you feel the rumble of those engines, there's nothing like it."
Today, she spends her free time volunteering with the Ariolina Young Aviators in Durham, North Carolina, a program that provides education and training to low-income high school students who have their sights set on aviation careers. In her work with young people, Shirley draws from her own experiences to show them that no goal is ever beyond their reach.
"There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that anyone can do anything they want," she said. "It's just a matter of how much you want it. For me, quitting was never an option. I wanted to be a pilot, and I wanted it to be with United."
If you can't get to Mars, what's the next best thing? Apparently Iceland. A team of renowned explorers and researchers recently journeyed to Iceland to test a Mars analog suit in a Martian-like environment.
The United sponsored expedition, led by The Explorers Club — an internationally recognized organization that promotes the scientific exploration of land, sea, air and space — and in partnership with Iceland Space Agency, involved the team venturing inside the Grímsvötn volcano and across the Vatnajökull ice cap. The group traveled to the remote location and lived for six days in the Grímsvötn Mountain Huts and endured harsh weather conditions and unstable terrain.
Helga Kristin Torfadöttir, Geologist and glacier guide, using the LiDAR system to map the ground and test the suit's capabilities on the glacier.
The objective of the mission was to explore the potential of concept operations at the Grímsvötn location while testing the suit in an arctic environment similar to what would be found on the surface of Mars. "This mission was an important test of the design of the MS1 suit, but it was also incredibly helpful to understand the how to conduct these sorts of studies in Iceland," said Michael Lye, MS1 designer and NASA consultant and RISD professor. "No matter how thoroughly something is tested in a controlled environment like a lab, studying it in a setting that accurately represents the environment where it will be used is absolutely essential to fully understand the design."
The suit was designed and constructed by faculty and students at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) with input and guidance from members of the HI-SEAS IV crew and NASA's Johnson Space Center Space Suit Engineering team. At 50-60 lbs, the suit is similar to what a planetary exploration suit would weigh in Martian gravity. The suit was originally designed to be used in the warm climate of Hawaii, however the martian climate is much closer to what would be found on top of the glaciers in Iceland. The data collected will inform the future of habitat and spacesuit design that can be used to train astronauts on Earth.
Today, we remember the colleagues, customers and every single victim of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
I know each of us in the United family marks this difficult moment in our own way. Still, we all share a common commitment to honor how our brothers and sisters left us and also celebrate what they gave to us during their lives. We remember their professionalism and heroism. We cherish their camaraderie and friendship. We carry with us the examples they set forth, especially in the heroism and bravery displayed by so many on that terrible day. Above all, we understand a simple truth: While thousands of our fellow human beings lost their lives in New York City, Arlington and Shanksville, the attacks of September 11th were aimed at all people of peace and good will, everywhere. They were attacks on the values that make life worth living, as well as the shared purpose that make us proud of what we do as members of the United family: connecting people and uniting the world.
We may live in times scarred by discord and disagreement, and we know there are those around the world who seek to divide us against one another. But, on this day – above all – we come together, as one. We affirm our core belief that far, far more unites us as citizens and fellow human beings than can ever divide us.
Let us embody that belief as we go about serving our customers and one another – on this day and every day – as we continue to help building a world that's more united. Let that be our memorial to the sisters and brothers we lost, eighteen Septembers ago.