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4 minute read
Margot Hornblower/Los Angeles

When the war ended in 1945, none of the 992 Tuskegee Airmen was able to get a job in commercial aviation. And even today, less than 1% of the approximately 71,000 pilots nationwide are African Americans. “It has been a struggle all the way,” said Perry Jones, a former Air Force flyer and Delta captain who heads the Organization of Black Airline Pilots. “We had more black pilots in 1942 than we do today.” Few jobs offer as much glamour as an airline pilot’s or pay so well–up to $180,000 a year at a major airline. And few jobs remain so overwhelmingly dominated by white males–97%. “Airlines only hired us because they were sued,” says Patrice Clarke Washington, the first black female to gain her stripes as a captain at a major airline, United Parcel Service.

Korean War flyer Marlon Green took Continental Airlines all the way to the Supreme Court in 1963, prompting a landmark judgment that opened commercial airlines to black pilots. It was 10 more years before a woman got that far, though during World War II 1,104 members of the Women’s Air Service Pilots covered 60 million miles ferrying every type of fighter and cargo plane, as well as testing planes and pulling targets for apprentice artillery gunners. Then, in a landmark case against United Airlines filed by the Justice Department in 1973, a federal court found entrenched discrimination and ordered United to “make up for lost time” by hiring blacks at twice the percentage of applicants who are black. In other important lawsuits, American Airlines was forced to drop a 5-ft. 6-in. height requirement-which put female applicants at a disadvantage–and USAir agreed to eliminate hiring preferences for the relatives and friends of employees–since the employees were overwhelmingly white.

But even court-ordered affirmative action is ineffective without constant vigilance. Despite the consent decree, United fell short of its goals, while federal agencies looked the other way. In 1988 the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, prodded by congressional hearings, went back to court against the airline on behalf of hundreds of rejected blacks and women. Since then, United has recruited minority pilots, some of whom have fewer hours of experience than most white applicants , bankrolled their additional training and managed to boost its minority pilots from 2.6% to 8.1% of the total, its female pilots from 1.5% to 5.5%.

One of the main barriers for would-be pilots is economic. The average cost of acquiring the college degree and flying time necessary for a civilian pilot’s license often surpasses $100,000. Loans and scholarships are not generally available for flying lessons, as they are for medical or legal training. For that reason, four-fifths of airline pilots are still hired from the military. “Anyone in a safety-related field wants to hire the best-qualified person available,” says Judy Tarver, the former head of pilot hiring at American Airlines. “Military pilots are prescreened, extensively trained and have a proven career path.”

But the military, which has become a model of diversity at many levels, has yet to break up the white male fraternity in the most desirable ranks. White males still make up 98% of military pilots. Military officials say many minority servicemen lack the high level of education required for flight school. But both women and blacks argue that the culture is hostile to them–and the Tailhook incident, for one, seems to support that claim.

The other obstacle, notes USAir pilot Philip Garland, is a lack of role models: “Many times on a flight, I’m not just the captain, I’m the only black on the plane. ” Despite the inspiration of the Tuskegee airmen, the airline industry still has a long way to go.

–By Margot Hornblower/Los Angeles

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