Blazing a Path to Flight Deck for African-American Girls - United Hub
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Blazing a path to flight deck for African-American girls

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

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."

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