When it comes to flying a plane and diversifying an industry, visibility is everything and American Airlines pilot Beth Powell, 41, knows a thing or two about both. Powell is one of just a few Black women holding high rank in the cockpit of commercial flights across America.
This is no easy feat: Only 4.4 percent of airline transport pilots are women, according to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. And when it comes to breaking down those numbers for Black women, statistics are scarce. However, in a 2014 study of U.S. pilots, it was concluded that 2.7 percent were Black, 2.5 percent were Asian, and 5 percent were Hispanic or Latino.
Though, you don’t need a study to observe the lack of Black women in positions of power in aviation. A simple stroll through an airport will do.
“We can start from my walks through the airport,” Powell says. “Passengers do a double take when they see me. Even some gate agents sometimes confuse me for a flight attendant [while I’m standing there] in full pilot uniform.”
However, instead of getting angry she uses this as a teachable moment, “I use this as an opportunity to re-introduce myself, as I understand it’s still so rare to see female pilots much less a Black female pilot.”
Powell, who grew up in Saint Mary, Jamaica, earned her private pilot license at age 17, then received her commercial license a year later. She’s been a commercial airline pilot since she was 21.
Ahead, Powell reflects on her journey.
ESSENCE: What sparked your interest in aviation?Beth Powell: I loved numbers and all subjects pertaining to math: college math, physics, accounting…really anything with numbers! At 15 years old I was introduced to the idea that I was a technical learner and was suited to become a pilot, mechanic or engineer from my school teacher.
ESSENCE: Can you tell me about your first job?Powell: I got a job at an AT&T telemarketing center. The objective was to win customers back if they switched from AT&T. While this did not align with my dream of being a pilot, I had to work for an income and treated that job with the same respect I would if I had my dream job.
That job helped me understand how to work with various people of different backgrounds and different temperaments. I developed great listening skills and customer service skills. I learned how to cushion the heck out of concerns and strategize on the fly for a win/win for both customer and company.
ESSENCE: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced to get your license to fly?Powell: I faced quite a bit of challenges. One of them being the first pilot in my family: When I was introduced to the idea and went home to my family to share the news, my dad posed a seemingly innocent question, “Are there even any female pilots?” That question could have shot my dream down in a second but I didn’t let it.
ESSENCE: Did your family ultimately support your dreams?Powell: My mom was very supportive even when she did not understand the journey ahead, she would encourage me to do the research and drove with me to various flight schools to pick the best. My dad’s ambition and attitude towards life helped me through difficult times. They really got me through the first leg financially, as well, and when they couldn’t anymore, I took it on.
ESSENCE: As a Black woman was it difficult navigating the industry?
Not seeing others that looked like me while at flight school in the U.S. was hard. I realized that this journey was not for me alone anymore. I made sure I prepared, studied and worked harder than anyone else to ensure my peers saw me as an equal and nothing less! And so I did.
I could have focused on what others thought or how others may have treated me, but understanding I was a part of something bigger motivated me. I did not make it about anyone or anything else other than my determination to succeed and remembering as my dad would say, “Failure is not an option” and that “My attitude will determine my altitude.”
ESSENCE: What women in history inspired your professional journey?Powell: Bessie Coleman! [Editor’s note: Bessie Coleman is the first Black woman to earn a pilot’s license.] When faced with an obstacle, she didn’t allow that to kill her dream. She instead found other ways to pursue and persevere. That’s sums up my personality and attitude in a nutshell. Seeing someone accomplish her dream that looked like me, was definitely an inspiration as well. It was great to see someone blaze a path for Black women.
ESSENCE: This section is called Path To Power: What are three decisions that you made that you feel helped you get to where you are at this moment?Powell: One: Not getting distracted by the noise and opinions of what others think about me. I made the decision to define who I am and what I wanted my destiny to be. I let that redefine others perception of me. Two: When faced with challenges, I look for solutions and surround myself with mentors who have a similar path or can help me see things in another light as they walked the path that I was trying to walk. Three: Sticking with and pursuing my passion with dedication, focus and drive and having a positive attitude has helped to propel me through. I always kept the big picture at the top of mind.
ESSENCE: Do you also mentor? Powell: I’ll be merging my scholarship with Sisters of the Skies (SOS) this year, so we can expand our reach and expose more Black girls to the possibilities of flight. And along with visiting schools to bring awareness to aviation, scholarships, and American Airline’s new cadet program, [I think], we’ll see a significant shift in more diverse pilots in the aviation industry.
ESSENCE: What advice do you have for Black girls considering a career in aviation?Powell: Know what you want at a young age. You will discover this based on the activities and subjects that you are passionate about. Dream big and dream loud, and set your goal. Your passion will propel you through your journey. And in the end, you will never feel as if you worked a day in your life because you are doing what you absolutely love. I also recommend aligning yourself with mentors who have been in your shoes and can help guide you along your journey.
To learn more about Sisters of the Skies, visit sistersoftheskies.org.