I asked Ms. Brenda Robinson, the Nation’s First Black Female Navy Pilot to provide a story to the brand story series. She was so gracious to share a bit of her brand story and I’m ecstatic to pass it along to you. Because of travel and prior engagements her interview is shorter than the others but rest assured, it’s just as sweet. Again, don’t take my word for it. Read for yourself.
Walk me through the step-by-step process that you went through to get to where you are today in your business or career. What was the first thing you did? Next?
I was 11 years old when I experienced my first flight. So if you can imagine having 10 cups of coffee and a bag full of candy that is how my body felt. I was absolutely jumping out of my skin and I knew to sit still and act like a lady. So I was just overwhelmed excited, and my nose stayed press to the window. I took a bazillion pictures of clouds. It was just amazing.
No, I did not drink any coffee and I did not eat any candy. For the record.
I stumbled across flying airplanes on my way to an air traffic control profession. I did not see the world in terms of women in aviation options or non-options. But I was already conditioned to see that aviation for women was a flight attendant position. And I was okay with that. That’s when my high school had a program called career study. Aviation was one of the options. It wasn’t the aviation that caught my attention, but because I was in the program it afforded me an opportunity to take field trips. Those field trips took me to both a different airport with an air traffic control tower that I fell in love with. It also gave me a helicopter ride over my neighborhood and my home. Both were cool but never suggested at any time in my brain that I would fly airplanes. This did not happen until I became an aeronautics student in college and then I actually learned I could take flying lessons, and more importantly, my parents okayed the concept and the cost. Because had they said nope, not happening, I would not have given it another thought. Maybe slightly disappointed but still not a career path that I should be concerned about.
My plans were not to go into the military. I was going to take my little private pilot’s license and find myself a good job in town. But then one day, there was a knock on my dorm room door. One of my classmates told me that the Dean of Aeronautics had sent him to my room specifically to get my butt over to the military briefing of all services. They were there to talk to the graduating aeronautics students. Cream of the crop as far as recruiters were concerned. I shut the door, stomped around, and then went to the briefing. THEY found ME. The Navy offered me an opportunity they said was of a lifetime. That I should go through basic training and then go directly to flight school for the Navy. The other services had a lot of red tape and small print, but the Navy was much more forthright. They were the first to mention to me also that I would be the first black woman to do so. Even black men up until this time had been discriminated against as far as military aviation. So the push was on, I provided the recruiters the opportunity to check 2 boxes. Female, and minority, and just to make things interesting, I was selected as one of 10 women in the entire nation in 1978 to do this pilot women’s program. It was not a program for women it was simply that we were overqualified in order for them to assure themselves our success in the program. The 10 women had to have a science degree and flight background. I had a science degree and my private pilot’s license which was much more than a flight background. The males that joined the military at that time simply had to graduate from college.
I was in the Navy 13 full-time active duty years and then I went on to finish my last 7 years (for 20) as a reservist.
After leaving the Navy with all of my experience, I did not bother to apply to any airline but the top 3. American, Delta, and United. United was the only one that had women pilots and I remember they had to go through some legal court case just to do it. So I thought okay I know some folks here, I’ll apply. So I took my picture I thought this would surely impress the interviewer and this would be perfect for their marketing department to see my photo and I would get hired. Well, I did not have as much sway in that area as I thought. I was hired by American and I was equally happy because their hiring system was so stringent, just getting through was huge. United did not hire me. I was stunned.
How did you live through those not so favorable times in the first few months/years?
My parents worked their overtime jobs or whatever it took to raise more money and we’re talking about $5,000. As a student, I was making about $60 a week in my little work study college job, I did not have money sometimes to even purchase my books. I remember one semester where I simply used the books from the library or folks leaving instead of turning books in just handed them to me. That flight money came from my parents and they had to make that possible when they could. Sometimes it was months before I got back into the plane. I would like to mention, one thing my father said to me, “you can call home anytime you need money, do not worry.” He was talking about personal spending money. “But make sure when you dial that phone, and we’re talking rotary phones back then, that you are so weak from malnutrition that you can barely dial the phone.” He was such a kidder. And keep in mind this was the life of a middle-class family.
Explain a life altering situation that nearly stopped you from starting your business or following you career path. How did you get back on track?
I slipped into a gray area. Having to deal with my counterparts in their disapproval of my competing in their field, I was more inclined to keep my particular achievement quiet, so most of them did not know my historic success. So less attention less complaining quieter. And from that I was more inclined to let my family and friends brag and tell folks, introduce me to people, with that title. I did enjoy that. Nowadays, women no longer have to hide behind the “I’m so sorry to have encroached on your space” attitude. I am very proud when I see that when I am in their company. Another offshoot side note, I just received a letter this week from the “international women in aviation.” They have inducted me into the Pioneer Hall of Fame. I will be awarded in March.
Behind every success, there’s an even greater success. Who is and was your biggest cheerleader?
My family which is now me, 59, and my almost 90-year-old father World War II veteran. He is super proud of me and I am so happy that we can spend time together, which actually had a little to do with my retirement from the airline. I was always on the go and not seeing him in his most healthy, active time of life. My mom passed away in 1986 at the age of 56. My dad never remarried. I was an only child so my focus stays with my dad and anything he needs. But he’s quite self-sufficient by the way.
So amazing! This story has so many take-away that I can’t name them all. The one thing that stood out the most for me was that she would have easily gave up the idea of being a pilot had her parents not approved. This proves that parents are a child’s first major influence. Let’s be the best influence for our children and those of others. Please pay Ms. Robinson a visit over at http://SuccessfulAttitude.com.