Photo by Hope O’Brien/Cronkite News Photos of William Norwood from his time in the Air Force and as a United Airlines pilot lie on his dining room table in Mesa, Arizona, on March 23, 2022.
Photo by Hope O’Brien/Cronkite News

Standing on the tarmac of Phoenix Goodyear Airport, more than 1,800 miles from her two children, Ricki Foster has chosen to chase a dream she never thought was possible: becoming a pilot.

“I didn’t aspire to be a pilot, it wasn’t a path that was accessible to me in my mind,” Foster said. “I didn’t see many female pilots, and I definitely didn’t see any Black female pilots at the airline I was working at.”

According to a 2021 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 3.9% of aircraft pilots and flight engineers were Black or African-American, and only 5.3% were women.

Growing up in Jamaica, Foster, 38, believed that becoming a flight attendant was her only path to the sky, but even that wasn’t easy. It wasn’t until a friend pushed her to take a chance at becoming a pilot – after more than 10 years as a flight attendant – that she truly thought she could take that leap.

Foster began the journey by trying to obtain her private pilot’s license.

“I had to stop for financial reasons, but it never left me – it was just in my soul,” Foster recalled. “And I decided, ‘OK, I’m going to make this happen one way or another.’”

That dream culminated in the United Aviate Academy, where Foster is one of 30 pilots in training in the inaugural class.

In the first year of the program, students complete their pilot training. Over the next 18 months, they must meet flight-hour requirements to earn an airline transport pilot certification.

United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby, in a statement, said the airline hopes to train more than 5,000 pilots over the next decade.

Capt. Curtis Brunjes, managing director of the academy, explained that the program is aimed at ensuring “an adequate supply of pilots at United” and “fulfilling (the airline’s) commitment to diversity.”

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Ricki Foster prepares for a training flight with the United Aviate Academy at Phoenix Goodyear Airport on Feb. 17, 2022. (Photo by Hope O’Brien/Cronkite News)

Brunjes said United and JPMorgan Chase are offering $2.4 million in scholarships to first-year students to make the program more financially accessible.

Foster appreciates the program’s commitment to diversity.

“This has been a male-dominated field for a very long time and predominantly white men, but our passengers don’t necessarily look like that,” Foster said. “So we’re changing it. And I’m a part of that change.”

A pioneering pilot

On a surprisingly cool August night in 1960, William Norwood sat at a red light on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, on his way back to Craig Air Force Base near Selma, Alabama. To Norwood’s left were two cars topped with crosses lit by incandescent bulbs.

“I didn’t look at them, but within my peripheral vision I can see the little dunce hats, the little white hats the (Ku Klux) Klan wore,” said Norwood, who was in advanced pilot training at Craig.

That moment was just one of many that Norwood would experience on his path to becoming United Airlines’ first Black pilot in 1965.

His pilot journey was harder for him than most candidates, he said. Norwood recalled being with his wife and two sons when an airline executive told him, “You cannot afford to tie your shoes incorrectly because they’re looking for a way to fire you.”

His wife, Molly Norwood, also felt the pressure of being the first Black family to break the cockpit color barrier at United Airlines.

“You have to be good, and you can’t do anything wrong,” she said. “We had to be super qualified.”

The family handled every obstacle placed in their path, and William Norwood went on to spend 31 years with United. Today, on display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, one of United’s Boeing 727 jets carries William Norwood’s name in honor of his legacy.

The sky isn’t the limit

In the living room of his Mesa home, which bathes in warm yellow light, Norwood tears up as he watches the video made for his retirement in 1996. As faces and names from his past flicker by, telling stories of how he impacted their lives, Molly Norwood said her husband still is a mentor to others, just as others had helped on his own journey.

“That is his passion; speaking to young people,” she said. “You would be surprised that at 86 years old, young people are still calling him.”

After retiring from United, Norwood shifted his focus to giving back to the next generation of pilots. From funding scholarships at his alma mater, Southern Illinois University, to visiting schools to speaking to young students that may one day be pilots, Norwood aims to give others the same support that he got.

“I do it because when we have been successful, we’re never successful by ourselves,” he said. “So we have to get to the point where we all stand on others’ shoulders.”

Foster is hoping to continue the legacy for future generations, including her 6-year-old daughter, Marley.

“That inspiration is for all of the little girls that could have become a pilot but didn’t think it was possible,” Foster said.

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A photo of William and Molly Norwood, from his last flight as a pilot for United Airlines, lies on his dining room table in Mesa, Arizona, on March 23, 2022. (Photo by Hope O’Brien/Cronkite News)

Although her daughter’s dreams may not be taking to the sky like her mother, Foster said the obstacles she has overcome to pursue her dream will teach her daughter that anything is possible.

“What she will learn from watching me is that she can be anything she wants to be, she can accomplish any goal,” Foster said. “And there are barriers of course, but there’s always ways to overcome them.”

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