Captain Theresa Mae Claiborne is recorded in the annals of history as the first African American woman to become a U.S. Air Force pilot. The aviatrix credits the phenomenal Tuskegee Airmen for motivating her to this achievement – the first Black woman pilot in the Air Force. The Tuskegee Airmen were a group of African American military pilots and airmen who fought in World War II.
Theresa Mae Claiborne was born on May 25, 1959, to Wayne Morris Sr. and Dorothy Claiborne in Emporia, Virginia. Theresa’s family was more involved with the military profession. As a result, it landed the family the opportunity to travel to many locations across America. Theresa graduated with honors from Elk Grove Senior High School in Elk Grove, California. She then enrolled at the California State University, Sacramento, where she specialized in Communication, Culture, and Media. She graduated from the institution in 1981. That same year, Theresa further engaged in her studies when she attended the University of California, Berkeley. She joined the Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program. This was a defining moment in her life and that was how she realized she wanted to be a pilot. On June 20, 1981, Theresa Mae Claiborne was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force.
Theresa Claiborne became the first African American female pilot in the U.S. Air Force after graduating from Laughlin Air Force Base on September 16, 1982, with class 82-08. She flew the Boeing KC-135E Stratotankers for seven years. She was positioned as a flight commander for the USAF reserves. Due to her cogent work, Theresa rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. On January 15, 1990, Lt. Colonel Claiborne joined United Airlines as a flight engineer and worked her way up to Captain on a Boeing 757/767 jetliner. Claiborne was not the first black female pilot at United Airlines, however, she remained part of the small percentage of black women pilots at the time. As of 2019, she was one of only 15 black women pilots at the airline. With an outstanding total of over 15,000 civilian flying hours, Lt. Colonel Claiborne became Captain Claiborne at United.
Theresa Claiborne from the military on January 6, 2003, with over 3000 military flight hours. In 2016, Claiborne would become a member of Sisters of the Skies. A body founded by Lt. Christine Angel Hughes to “pave the way for a new generation of Black female pilots” by providing encouragement and support to younger aspiring African American women interested in pursuing a career as a pilot in the U.S. military or commercial aviation. Claiborne and her colleagues, including Nia Wordlaw, provided mentoring, recruitment training, scholarship opportunities, and professional development training. Sisters of the Skies’ mission is to support and build a more diverse next generation of aviation professionals.
Captain Theresa Mae Claiborne currently resides in Sacramento, California together with her family.