Women of Color In Flight

"Growing up in Chicago I watched the sky—stars, clouds, moon, sun—determined I would travel among them. I accomplished that goal and more in 1992 as the first woman of color in the world to go into space without knowing about the path already set by trailblazing women. As a girl, while I had heard there were some women pilots, I really did not know about the incredible roles women and especially women of color, played in aviation and aerospace. If I had known then… Well, let’s just say I cannot think of many more important tasks for me now than to bring broad public awareness to the achievements, since the very beginning, of these women in flight."

—Mae Jemison, MD, Former Astronaut, Celebration Chair

Amazing women have been integral to our understanding of the heavens, as well as our dreams and capacity to explore it. While society begins to acknowledge and applaud some women, the myriad contributions of women of color from around the world to aviation and aerospace demand greater recognition.

Below is a short gallery of some of the incredible and fearless women whose courage, strength and will created the path for Women of Color in Flight.

African American aviatrix Bessie Coleman was forced to gain her pilot’s license in France in 1921 due to racism and sexism in the United States—but that is just a part of the story and not even the beginning. Numerous women of color before and after her made their marks as scientists, pilots, engineers, technicians and builders of our imagination.

A faceless Dogon elder watched the sky countless generations ago in the Sahara and the world’s first novelist, Murasaki Shibuku, a Japanese woman, wrote of the moon goddess coming to earth in the eleventh century.

Hazel Lee, a Chinese American pilot whose offer to fly support missions was turned down by a China that desperately needed pilots in WWII because she was a woman, became a WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilot).

Nichelle Nichols’ Lt. Uhura on Star Trek brought women with technical knowledge to the forefront of our imagination. Ten years later Ms. Nichols was instrumental in the identification and recruitment of women, African American, Hispanic and Asian astronauts for NASA. A little over 20 years later Dr. Mae Jemison became the first woman of color in the world to go into space.

And in 40 years an all female Kenyan aircrew took off from Nairobi led by Capt. Irene “Koki” Mutungi. Ellen Ochoa, Ph.D. became an astronaut while working as a researcher at NASA Ames Research Center. Dr. Chiaki Mukai, a cardiac surgeon has logged more time in space than any other Japanese spacefarer. Kalpana Chawla, Ph.D. flew her second mission aboard the ill-fated Columbia Space Shuttle. African American Lt. Col. Beverly Armstrong flew military intelligence missions on the South Korean border.

Today women of color fly commercial airline jumbo jets, research the surface of Mars and the physiology of anyone who might travel there, maintain aircraft and ensure our safety, command and pilot fantastical vehicles inside a deadly computer generated matrix and fuel our possibilities as they tell about the worlds to come.

The Women of Color in Flight series is a celebration and honor to all of the women who inspired the dreams of young women to achieve greatness in aviation.