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."

United Cargo operates more than 11,000 cargo-only flights in one year

By The Hub team, March 19, 2021

On March 19, 2020, United operated its first flight carrying cargo without passengers on board. While the passenger cabin was empty, its cargo hold was completely full, carrying more than 29,000 pounds of commodities from Chicago O'Hare International Airport (ORD) to Frankfurt Airport (FRA).

A year later, United Cargo has operated more than 11,000 cargo-only flights carrying more than 570 million pounds of freight. To support the COVID-19 pandemic recovery efforts, United Cargo has also transported more than 113 million pounds of medical and pharmaceutical products on both cargo-only and passenger flights as well as approximately 10 million COVID-19 vaccines, providing global communities access to the items they have needed most.

10 tips for spring travel

By The Hub team, February 24, 2021

Whether you haven't flown with us for a while or just need a quick refresher before your spring trip, read this list of tips to know before your flight and arrive at the airport travel-ready:

1. Download the United app for contactless bag check, travel assistance and more

Before your flight, download the United app to view your flight status, check in, sign up for flight notifications, locate departure gates, access our free personal device entertainment when available and more. We've also updated our app with new features that can make your trip a little safer, including contactless bag check.

Don't forget to use Agent on Demand for help with any and all questions you may have before your flight. This new capability is available at all our U.S. hub airports and allows you to use your own mobile device to contact a customer service agent via phone, video or chat to help with day-of-travel questions while you're at the airport. Learn more about Agent on Demand here.

United joins UNICEF COVAX initiative

By The Hub team, February 19, 2021

This week, we were honored to become the first U.S. airline to join the UNICEF Humanitarian Airfreight Initiative to combat the COVID-19 pandemic by transporting the vaccine and other critically needed supplies to underserved areas of the globe.

"We are committed to helping the global community in any way we can, and we all must work together to do our part to bring this health and humanitarian crisis to an end," said Director of Cargo Specialty Products Manu Jacobs.

We will leverage our expertise to transport these critical pharmaceutical and healthcare shipments around the world safely, efficiently and expediently. We are proud to partner with the United Nations to support this global effort and provide equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines.

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