At a time of racial and gender discrimination, Bessie Coleman became the first black woman to earn a pilot’s license in the 1920s. The Tuskegee Airmen became America’s first black military squadron during World War II. After a six-year legal battle, Marlon Green became the first black commercial airline pilot in 1963.
At Delta, two other black pioneers are among those who have secured places in aviation history: Cal Flanigan and Rachelle Kerr. Each started their career at very different times, and neither took the traditional route to achieve their dream of becoming a pilot.
Flanigan began working in maintenance at Delta in 1968, four years after the Civil Rights Act became law and black pilots began breaking through the color barrier. “I was always a believer that ability does not come with skin color, whether you’re a male or female, no matter your background or religion,” Flanigan said recently. “If you have the ability, the drive and the desire, nothing else matters.” That same year, Delta hired its first black pilot, Sam Graddy. He was an inspiration to Flanigan, who followed in his footsteps, becoming a Delta pilot himself in 1976. Years later, their careers would intersect in a history-making moment for the airline.
Pilots like Graddy and Flanigan helped pave the way for Kerr, who faced her own stereotypes on her journey from the tarmac to the cockpit. She started her career at Delta in 1994 as a ramp agent but her true calling was not on the ground but in the air. “It was a male-dominated industry. I wasn’t sure how I’d be treated or looked at, but I didn’t care,” said Kerr. “I decided I was going to go for it and just kept looking forward.”
With the encouragement of a pilot friend, she took an introductory flight lesson in a Cessna 172. From the moment she sat in the cockpit, she was hooked. Kerr’s career came full circle in 2010 when she returned to Delta as a first officer.
Flanigan’s fascination with flight was sparked at a young age. That passion carried him into the history books in 1980, when he and Graddy became the first black cockpit crew to fly together at Delta. Fittingly, their flight plan took them through the heart of the American South – from Alabama to Mississippi – where the civil rights movement had encountered some of its stiffest resistance. Flanigan flew into history once more when he retired in 2013 as Delta’s longest-serving captain.
Kerr made history of her own in 2009 while she was a captain at Atlantic Southeast Airlines, a Delta Connection carrier. There, she piloted the first all-black, all-female flight crew in U.S. history, which included first officer Stephanie Grant and flight attendants Robin Rogers and Diana Galloway. Making the moment even more special, it happened in February: Black History Month.
Today, Flanigan and Kerr hope their stories inspire others. “You can be anything you want to be, but you have to be willing to work and to sacrifice,” said Flanigan. Kerr believes it’s important to lead by example, showing young women that a career in aviation can be a reality. “Don’t let anyone stop you from achieving that dream,” she said. “Just remember to keep looking up.”
Editor's note: This video was first published in February 2016.