- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 31, 2000

Five teen-agers surround pilot Shirley Tyus, 49, as she leans over a map, using rulers and pins to illustrate the plotting of a flight from Boston to Denver.
"So, if you didn't do that, would you crash?" asks one of the students.
"And how do you know where you are in the air?" asks another before Mrs. Tyus can answer.
Sharp and tidy in a navy blue uniform with gold trim, the tall, slim woman tells her story to the students of T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va. how she worked her way up from flight attendant, took flying lessons and raised three children along the way. Then she takes a small group aside to work on the map.
In the center of the group is a young woman, quietly taking it all in.
"I don't think I want to be a pilot," says the young woman, Elizabeth Lima, 17, "but it's good to know that today, a woman can do what she wants to do."
The girl stands out just as Mrs. Tyus stands out in her field, as one of few female pilots in the country and even fewer who are female and black.
"People want to know about her, and it's important to set an example for the children," says Hazle Abrams, the pilot's best friend of 42 years, whom she met in the projects of Buffalo, N.Y., and who organizes much of Mrs. Tyus' outreach work. "It keeps me motivated that she comes from the same place I did and could shatter the glass ceiling to get where she is."
In 1987, Mrs. Tyus became the first black female pilot hired by United Airlines. There are approximately 77,000 active commercial pilots in the country only 14 of whom are black women, Mrs. Tyus says. Of the total, only about 6 percent are women and 2 percent are black, according to Atlanta-based Air Information Resources Inc., a career service for pilots.
"It is one of the last bastions of male dominance," says Mrs. Tyus, "and when I signed on, there were more African-American brain surgeons than pilots."
Mrs. Tyus aims to change that by visiting local schools and inspiring children to seek careers in the field or, she says, to follow their dreams into whatever field they desire.
"I made it from the projects to the cockpit of an airplane," says the Spartansburg, S.C., native. "It's all about setting your mind to something. You can do anything you want."
Mrs. Tyus was 21, a model and a college student when, in 1971, she and two friends stopped by the Kansas City airport to pick up a friend and noticed a sign recruiting "stewardesses" outside the United Airlines office. As a joke, the women decided to check it out.
"We just bounced into the interviewer's office and told him we wanted to fly," she says. "He laughed and joked with us, and then hired us on the spot."
Mrs. Tyus and her friends backed out then, but she called six months later to accept the offer. She almost dropped out of the training, but on April 18, 1972, she became a flight attendant for United.
After flying for five years, Mrs. Tyus began spending her breaks in the cockpit, talking shop with the crew. They even let her manipulate the controls.
"These Washington-based pilots, they would just jokingly tell me, 'Oh, this is a piece of cake. You can do this.' " she says. "They actually talked me into it, and I started taking flight lessons."
Mrs. Tyus enrolled in Professional Flight School in Potomac, Md. It took a while to find a suitable instructor most were less than welcoming to a wannabe pilot who was female and black.
"My first instructor told me I should be at home, pregnant, like his wife," she says, "so I dumped him and got another one. He had a temper you wouldn't believe."
Mrs. Tyus took leave from United to take the flying lessons, hesitant to quit her job without knowing whether United would hire her back to sit behind the controls. The company hired its first black male pilot in 1966 but didn't hire its first white female until 1977. There was no black female pilot on the payroll.
After getting her license, Mrs. Tyus signed on with Wheeler Flying Service in North Carolina, flying cargo and then passengers out of the Raleigh-Durham airport.
Warren Wheeler, a Southern businessman with one airplane and big aspirations, started the airline in 1969 to give black pilots an outlet for their training. The first black-owned airline in the states, Wheeler grew to a nearly $1 million business within a couple of years.
"I wouldn't be where I am today if it wasn't for Wheeler, and neither would a lot of other black pilots," Mrs. Tyus says. "He opened the doors for a lot of people."
One of them was Jill E. Brown, a University of Maryland graduate who went from Wheeler to become the first black female pilot to fly for a major U.S. commercial airline. She signed on with Texas International Airlines in 1978.
Mrs. Tyus followed about a decade later, taking her final jetliner training with United and becoming a full-fledged pilot in 1987.
Today, she flies a 727 craft as co-pilot but soon will upgrade to a 757 and take the captain's seat.
Mrs. Tyus remembers her first flight quite vividly, thanks to the captain.
She says he came over the public address system, told the passengers it was her first flight and asked them to rate her performance on a scale of one to 10.
"First of all, of course that would scare the passengers," she says. "but I just kept a stiff upper lip, and it was the sweetest landing."
She says the passengers weren't very pleased when they saw her, but none gave her less than a nine. "A 'sister' got off and told me she gives me a 14."
Some passengers are outwardly rude when they see their pilot is not the usual white male, but most don't mind or at least don't say anything, Mrs. Tyus says.
"One woman was quite vocal about it, going on and on. But she finally got on anyway, once she came down. I think people realize that they do have a choice, that they can always wait for the next flight."
Mrs. Tyus works against this prejudice as vice president of the Bessie Coleman Foundation, a District of Columbia-based nonprofit group of black female aviators.
The foundation is named for Elizabeth "Bessie" Coleman, the first black aviatrix to receive a pilot's license from the International Aeronautical Federation, which she earned in 1921. She died five years later when a plane rolled and threw her from the cockpit.
Mrs. Tyus had her first scare in January, after nearly 28 years in the air.
She was taking off from Buffalo, N.Y. ironically the town where she grew up when a light came on signaling a fire in engine No. 3.
Mrs. Tyus had no choice but to keep going, as there wasn't enough runway left to stop safely. She circled around and eventually landed at Buffalo.
"When you're taking off, you're lifting this 180,000-pound machine off the runway you're defying nature," she says. "It's the ultimate freedom. You feel powerful, blessed."

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