Blazing a path to flight deck for African-American girls
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."
Right now, around the world, brave members of America's armed forces are on duty, defending our freedom and upholding our values.
When not laser-focused on the mission at hand, they're looking forward to the day when their service to our nation is fulfilled and they can reunite with their families.
They are also imagining how they can use their hard-earned skills to build an exciting, rewarding and important career when they return home.
I want them to look no further than United Airlines.
That's why we are focused on recruiting, developing and championing veterans across our company, demonstrating to our returning women and men in uniform that United is the best possible place for them to put their training, knowledge, discipline and character to the noblest use.
They've developed their knowledge and skills in some of the worst of times. We hope they will use those skills to keep United performing at our best, all of the time.
That's why we are accelerating our efforts to onboard the best and the brightest, and substantially increasing our overall recruitment numbers each year.
We recently launched a new sponsorship program to support onboarding veterans into United and a new care package program to support deployed employees. It's one more reason why United continues to rank high - and rise higher - as a top workplace for veterans. In fact, we jumped 21 spots this year on Indeed.com's list of the top U.S workplaces for veterans. This is a testament to our increased recruiting efforts, as well as our efforts to create a culture where veterans feel valued and supported.
We use the special reach and resources of our global operations to partner with outstanding organizations. This is our way of stepping up and going the extra mile for all those who've stepped forward to answer our nation's call.
We do this year-round, and the month of November is no exception; however, it is exceptional, especially as we mark Veterans Day.
As we pay tribute to all Americans who have served in uniform and carried our flag into battle throughout our history, let's also keep our thoughts with the women and men who are serving around the world, now. They belong to a generation of post-9/11 veterans who've taken part in the longest sustained period of conflict in our history.
Never has so much been asked by so many of so few.... for so long. These heroes represent every color and creed. They are drawn from across the country and many immigrated to our shores.
They then freely choose to serve in the most distant and dangerous regions of the world, to protect democracy in its moments of maximum danger.
Wherever they serve - however they serve - whether they put on a uniform each day, or serve in ways which may never be fully known, these Americans wake up each morning willing to offer the "last full measure of devotion" on our behalf.
Every time they do so, they provide a stunning rebuke to the kinds of voices around the world who doubt freedom and democracy's ability to defend itself.
Unfortunately, we know there are those who seem to not understand – or say they do not - what it is that inspires a free people to step forward, willing to lay down their lives so that their country and fellow citizens might live.
But, we – who are both the wards and stewards of the democracy which has been preserved and handed down to us by veterans throughout our history – do understand.
We know that inciting fear and hatred of others is a source of weakness, not strength. And such divisive rhetoric can never inspire solidarity or sacrifice like love for others and love of country can.
It is this quality of devotion that we most honor in our veterans - those who have served, do serve and will serve.
On behalf of a grateful family of 96,000, thank you for your service.
Each year around Veterans Day, Indeed, one of the world's largest job search engines, rates companies based on actual employee reviews to identify which ones offer the best opportunities and benefits for current and former U.S. military members. Our dramatic improvement in the rankings this year reflects a stronger commitment than ever before to actively recruiting, developing and nurturing veteran talent.
"We've spent a lot of time over the past 12 months looking for ways to better connect with our employees who served and attract new employees from the military ranks," said Global Catering Operations and Logistics Managing Director Ryan Melby, a U.S. Army veteran and the president of our United for Veterans business resource group.
"Our group is launching a mentorship program, for instance, where we'll assign existing employee-veterans to work with new hires who come to us from the armed forces. Having a friend and an ally like that, someone who can help you translate the skills you picked up in the military to what we do as a civilian company, is invaluable. That initiative is still in its infancy, but I'm really optimistic about what it can do for United and for our veteran population here."
Impressively, we were the only one of our industry peers to move up on the list, further evidence that we're on a good track as a company.
The question of where David Ferrari was had haunted retired U.S. Army Sergeant Major Vincent Salceto for the better part of 66 years.
Rarely did a week go by that Salceto didn't think about his old friend. Often, he relived their last moments together in a recurring nightmare. In it, it's once again 1953 and Salceto and Ferrari are patrolling a valley in what is now North Korea. Suddenly, explosions shatter the silence and flares light up the night sky.
Crouching under a barrage of bullets, Salceto, the squad's leader, drags two of his men to safety, then he sees Ferrari lying face down on the ground. He runs out to help him, but he's too late. And that's when he always wakes up.
Italian Americans from opposite coasts – Salceto from Philadelphia, Ferrari from San Francisco – the two became close, almost like brothers, after being assigned to the same unit during the Korean War. When Ferrari died, it hit Salceto hard.
"After that, I never let anyone get close to me like I did with Dave," he says. "I couldn't; I didn't want to go through that again."
When the war ended, Salceto wanted to tell Ferrari's family how brave their son and brother had been in battle. Most of all, he wanted to salute his friend at his gravesite and give him a proper farewell.
For decades, though, Salceto had no luck finding his final resting place or locating any of his relatives. Then, in June of this year, he uncovered a clue that led him to the Italian Cemetary in Colma, California, where Ferrari is buried.
Within days, Salceto, who lives in Franklinville, New Jersey, was packed and sitting aboard United Flight 731 from Philadelphia to San Francisco with his wife, Amy, and daughter, Donna Decker, on his way to Colma. For such a meaningful trip, he even wore his Army dress uniform.
That's how San Francisco-based flight attendant Noreen Baldwin spotted him as he walked down the jet bridge to get on the plane.
"I saw him and said to the other crew members, 'Oh my goodness, look at this guy,'" she says. "I knew there had to be a story."
The two struck up a conversation and Salceto told Baldwin why he was traveling. She got emotional listening to him talk and made a point of fussing over him, making sure he and his family had everything they needed.
About halfway through the flight, Baldwin had an idea. She and her fellow crew members would write messages of encouragement to Salceto and invite his fellow passengers to do the same.
"We did it discreetly," says Baldwin. "I asked the customers if they saw the man in uniform, which most had, and asked them if they wanted to write a few words for him on a cocktail napkin. A lot of people did; families did it together, parents got their kids to write something. After the first few rows, I was so choked up that I could barely talk."
When Baldwin surprised Salceto with dozens of hand-written notes, he, too, was speechless. He laid the stack on his lap and read each one. At the same time, the pilots made an announcement about the veteran over the loud speaker, after which the customers on board burst into applause.
"It seems contrived, and I hate using the word organic, but that's what it was; it just happened," Baldwin says. "Mr. Salceto was so loveable and humble, and what he was doing was so incredible, it felt like the right thing to do. And you could tell he was touched."
On June 27, Salceto finally stood before Ferrari's grave and said that long-awaited goodbye. As a trumpeter played "Taps," he unpinned a medal from his jacket and laid it reverently on the headstone.
"I had gotten a Bronze Star for my actions [the night Ferrari died] with a 'V' for valor, and that was the medal I put on Dave's grave," says Salceto, pausing to fight back tears. "I thought he was more deserving of it than I was."
For the first time in years, Salceto felt at peace. His mission was accomplished.