Dulles' Chief Pilot Captain James Simons helping break barriers
In honor of Black History Month, each week we will profile an employee who is helping to break barriers. Follow along throughout the month of February for these extraordinary stories of perseverance.
Washington Dulles International Airport - Based Chief Pilot Captain James Simons can tell you stories.
He can tell you about the time early in his career when a fellow pilot referred to him in passing as, "One of those people who have been out in the sun too long," before accusing him of being a "quota hire."
He can tell you about his interview with another carrier in 1989, in which a manager told James that if he were hired, he'd be one of only six African American pilots at the airline.
And he can tell you about the burden that African American pilots have carried with them for years, the burden of having to be exceptional in the face of unrelenting prejudice.
"You cannot be average," James said. "You have to be on your A game every single day, because, as soon as you're average, there's someone who will say, 'See there, I told you they couldn't do it.'
Yes, James can tell you all of those things. But he can also tell you about the evolution he's seen during his nearly three decades in the industry when it comes to airlines accepting pilots from diverse backgrounds, and he can tell you what it's been like to serve as a guiding hand for that kind of change as the second-ever African American chief pilot in United's history, following Captain Rick McCullough, who was the first.
When James took over as Washington Dulles Airport's base chief pilot in 2012, it was a milestone that attracted a lot of attention. His friends and colleagues were quick to tell him that it was a big deal and there were stories in the press calling James a trailblazer. While he was never entirely comfortable with that designation, James did see moving into management as an opportunity to make an impact as a role model and a champion.
"In the African American community, you're always looking for ways to help others behind you," he said. "My job is to continue to open doors and mentor those who are coming up behind me."
Today, three of the eight base chief pilots at United are black, and there's more diversity among our pilot population than ever before. The road to get to this point wasn't always smooth, but James likes what he sees when he looks at the strides the industry has made.
"I'm proud of United and its efforts to advance diversity and inclusion," he said. "I think we've done an outstanding job here, and I'm proud to be a part of it. And I like to think that, since I've had pretty good success out here at Dulles, I'm now just the chief pilot and not the 'black chief pilot.'"