Meet Our First African American Woman Pilot - United Hub

Meet our first African American woman pilot

By Matt Adams, February 26, 2018

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."

Entertainment for all

By The Hub team, August 04, 2020

Our Marketing Inflight Entertainment and Connectivity team and Bridge, our Business Resource Group (BRG) for people with all abilities, partnered together to test and provide feedback on our award-winning seatback inflight entertainment (IFE) system.

Aptly named "Entertainment for all," our new seatback IFE system offers the an extensive suite of accessibility features, allowing for unassisted use by people of all visual, hearing, mobility and language abilities.

"It's nice to know that I can get on a plane and pick my favorite entertainment to enjoy, just like every customer," said Accessibility Senior Analyst and Developer and Bridge Chief of Staff Ray C., who is blind.

"As a deaf employee, the closed captioning availability on board our aircraft is something I value greatly," added Information Technology Analyst Greg O. "The new IFE further cements United's visibility within the deaf community and elsewhere. It makes me proud to be an employee."

Accessibility features of the new IFE include a text-to-speech option, explore by touch, customizable text size, screen magnification, color correction and inversion modes, and alternative navigation options for those unable to swipe or use a handset. For hearing-impaired and non-English-speaking passengers, customization options provide the ability for customers to be served content and receive inflight notifications based on their preferences and settings —with closed captions, with subtitles or in the language of their choice from the 15 languages supported. Our "Entertainment for all" system won the Crystal Cabin Award in 2019, and recently, the Dr. Margaret Pfanstiehl Research and Development Award for Audio Description by the American Council of the Blind.

"This really showed the benefits of partnering with BRGs in helping us improve products and services for our customers and employees," said Inflight Entertainment and Connectivity Senior Manager Corinne S. "Even though we have been recognized with awards for our IFE accessibility features, we are not resting on our laurels but continuing to work towards improving the inflight entertainment experience for all of our customers to ensure entertainment is available for all."

Shaping an inclusive future with Special Olympics

By The Hub team, July 24, 2020

If your travels have taken you through Chicago O'Hare International Airport anytime since October 2019, you may have had a friendly, caring and jovial exchange with Daniel Smrokowski. Daniel is one of four Service Ambassadors thanks to our ongoing partnership with Special Olympics. This inaugural ambassador program aims to provide Special Olympic athletes employment opportunities within our operation, affording them a unique and meaningful career.

Since 2018, our partnership with Special Olympics has become one of United's most cherished relationships, going beyond the events we take part in and volunteer with. While the plane pull competitions, polar plunges, duck derbies and Special Olympics World Games and other events around the world are a big part of our involvement, the heart of this partnership lies with the athletes and individuals supported by Special Olympics. To advocate for their inclusion in every setting is one of our biggest honors, and we take great pride in the role we play in the organization's inclusion revolution.

Aiding in the success of Special Olympics' mission to create continuing opportunities for individuals with intellectual disabilities, throughout the two-year partnership, United has volunteered over 10,500 hours and donated over $1.2 million in travel to the organization. The impact of this partnership is felt at every level, both at Special Olympics and within our own ranks.

"The Inclusion Revolution campaign, led by our athletes, aims to end discrimination against people with intellectual disabilities. United Airlines has joined in our fight for inclusion, empowering our athletes with the skills needed to succeed and opportunities to contribute their abilities as leaders," said Special Olympics International Chairman Tim Shriver. "United Airlines believes that people with intellectual disabilities should be perceived as they really are: independent, world-class athletes, students, employees, neighbors, travelers, and leaders who contribute to make this world a better place."

Our Service Ambassador program is just one of the many ways Special Olympics has impacted not only our employees, but also our customers. "I see every day how our Service Ambassadors connect with our customers the moment they walk into the airport lobby," said Senior Customer Service Supervisor Steve Suchorabski. "They provide a warm, welcoming smile ad assist in any way they can. To see these young adults hold positions that a society once told them they couldn't is truly the most heartwarming part of my job," Steve continued.

"The opportunity to be a part of the United family means everything to me," Daniel said. "I feel so much pride showing up to work in a Special Olympics/United co-branded uniform, working among such a loving and supportive community. The relationship between these two organizations is truly helping to shape my future while letting me use my gifts of communicating and helping others. Hopefully, I can spend my entire career at United," Daniel added.

In honor of Special Olympics' Global Week of Inclusion in July, we're asking our employees, customers and partners to sign a pledge to #ChooseToInclude at jointherevolution.org/pledge.

And be sure to check out Daniel's podcast The Special Chronicles.

United works with partners to send food to USDA food bank

By The Hub team, July 23, 2020

In collaboration with food-logistics company Commodity Forwarders Inc. (CFI), United moved nearly 190,000 pounds of fresh produce to Guam for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Coronavirus Farm Assistance Program. This new program was created to provide critical support to consumers impacted by the COVID-19 global pandemic.

A variety of fresh fruits were transported from Los Angeles (LAX) to Guam (GUM) on United's newly introduced, non-stop cargo-only flight – a route added to meet cargo demand during the COVID-19 crisis. The fresh food was repacked in 10-pound cases in Los Angeles, prepared for departure at CFI's LAX location, and flown to GUM by the United team. Through this beneficial partnership between United and CFI, the perishable goods were kept cool during every step of the process and distributed as part of the food bank program in Guam.

"Everyone on our team has worked relentlessly during the pandemic to get critical goods to where they are needed most. Establishing a comprehensive network of cargo-only flights have allowed us to keep the supply chain moving even while passenger flight capacity has been reduced," said Regional Senior Manager of Cargo Sales, Marco Vezjak. "Knowing that we are able to help during these difficult times – in this case the Guam community – is our biggest reward and greatest motivation to keep moving forward."

United is proud to play a role in maintaining the global food supply chain and helping people access the supplies they need. Since March 19, United has operated over 4,000 cargo-only flights, moving over 130 million pounds of cargo.

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