When First Officer Angel Hughes first knew she wanted to become a pilot, she was in the sixth grade. “I was 11 years old and sitting in my science class, when I was first introduced to astronomy,” Hughes recalls. “And I remember sitting there and just being completely enthralled with space, the universe, the sky, and everything happening way up above us. And that’s when I decided I wanted to be the pilot of the space shuttle.”
She continues, “But I started looking at the track line to become an astronaut, where traditionally the pilots of the space shuttle were military pilots, and I knew early on that I wanted to go to a regular college instead of a military academy.” According to Hughes, there are two track options to becoming a pilot – the civilian route or the military route. “Both would traditionally include a four-year degree, and it doesn’t have to be in aviation,” she notes. “Then you have to go to flight school. Eventually, I ended up doing both the civilian and the military route,” she laughs.
From Taxiing to Takeoff
Hughes majored in aviation management and flight operations at Jacksonville University in Florida while also getting her pilot licenses. “I graduated from Jacksonville University in 2008 and was working as a certified flight instructor, trying to build my flight time and trying to get hired by the airlines,” Hughes explains.
“But the airline pilot industry was kind of in the slumps just like the economy. Pilots were getting furloughed and fired and airlines were going bankrupt,” she continues. “So at that point, I decided to join the military so that I could continue my flying career.” And after looking at all branches of the military, she decided to join the U.S. Coast Guard.
“Every military branch has an aviation unit, but I fell in love with the Coast Guard’s mission and decided to join them as a pilot,” Hughes says. “And with my commission, which is what they call it once you graduate from their officer’s school to be a military officer, I went to Navy flight school in Pensacola, Florida.”
She continues, “Navy flight school is two years, so in 2011 I graduated as a naval aviator in the Coast Guard. And the military paid for it all,” she exclaims. But Hughes had to pay them back with time, so she did 11 years of active duty with the Coast Guard. “During those 11 years, I was flying and gaining all the necessary experience that I needed to land a mainline flying job. And once my military commitment was up, I applied to UPS, got hired and here I am!”
Hughes flies the Boeing 767 internationally for UPS. “This past year alone, I’ve flown to more than 15 countries, but I fly to Europe and Asia the most,” she notes. “I love it because it doesn’t feel like a job! I still can’t believe that I get paid to have fun, to fly around the world, and experience new cultures and new foods. It’s an amazing job,” Hughes exclaims.
Her top three favorite layovers are Dubai, Cologne, Germany and Osaka, Japan. But before joining UPS, Hughes hadn’t seen another Black woman pilot. “I had been flying since I was 16 and had been to hundreds of civilian and military airports, but I was always the only Black female in the building,” Hughes maintains.
“So I was in the airline industry for 13 years before I ran into another Black female pilot,” she laments. But at 29 years old, Hughes was scrolling Facebook and came across the page of Nia Gilliam-Wordlaw. “And what really stopped me in my tracks was that she was the first Black female I saw in uniform who was doing exactly what I wanted to do, which was flying wide-body, jumbo jet airplanes around the world,” Hughes says with excitement.
So Hughes says she reached out to Gilliam-Wordlaw and they became good friends.
“And I said to Nia, ‘Between the both of us, we could probably gather all of the Black female pilots into a GroupMe chat.’ And that’s how we co-founded Sisters of the Skies (SOS) in 2016,” Hughes explains.
According to SOS, there are approximately 200 Black women pilots nationwide, which is less than one percent of all U.S. pilots. The nonprofit organization’s mission is to continue to increase that number through its programming, scholarships and sponsorships. “We believe that in order to gain more Black female pilots, the first step is exposure,” explains Hughes.
“There are little Black girls and even Black women who never thought they could even become a pilot, not because of obstacles and hurdles but simply because they’ve never seen one. That’s why I always say representation matters,” she emphasizes. “You just never know who you will inspire just by wearing your uniform. So that’s why we find the importance of going to career days and other community outreach events in uniform, so young girls can see us,” she states.
In fact, some airport passengers are shocked to see Black women pilots. “I do have those moments when I walk through terminals in my uniform, and the stares that I get are like I’m an alien,” Hughes laughs. “But I also get random men and women of all races and ages come up to me saying they’ve never seen a Black female pilot before and that they’re very proud to see me. And my fellow SOS sisters have similar stories where they’re treated like celebrities,” she says. It was a huge event this past August when American Airlines flight 372 from Phoenix to Dallas made history with the first all-Black female flight crew in the carrier’s 96-year history. “They had Black female pilots, mechanics, gate agents, wrappers – everybody working that flight was a Black woman,” exclaims Hughes. The flight celebrated the 100th anniversary of Bessie Coleman – the first African American female pilot – earning her pilot’s license in Europe because no flight program in the United States would accept her.
Tenacity Through Turbulence
Though it’s been 100 years since the racism and sexism Bessie Coleman received, Black women pilots are still dealing with those challenges. “There are a lot of old school, white male instructors that believe that women in general shouldn’t be pilots, and especially Black women,” laments Hughes. “So we always have to be on our A game. And that’s why we’re here to lean on as a support group of mentors,” she adds.
“We’ve all had that imposter syndrome like, ‘Maybe I don’t belong here. Maybe my instructor is right.’ So we really provide that emotional support, which I believe is one of the greatest assets of SOS.” That mentorship is something a lot of the older SOS members didn’t have. “Some of our mentees are in college, but the majority of them are women who are beyond college,” notes Hughes. “We have many nine-to-five working women, like wives and mothers, who want to become pilots. A lot of them are women who want to change careers, and a lot of them are flight attendants who want to go from the cabin to the flight deck,” she admits.
Another challenge SOS tries to lessen is the cost of becoming a pilot. “The average cost for flight school is $100,000,” declares Hughes. “So we offer flight training scholarships twice a year. All of the fundraising that we do, every cent goes toward scholarships, which are usually $5,000,” Hughes continues.
“The application process is opened up to all our mentees, and they answer an essay question, and then we’ll interview the finalists and pick from there. And the money goes directly to the flight school for their training.” Hughes says trainees have to go through a series of licenses, noting, “The first license is your private pilot license, then your instrument license, then your multi-engine license and then your commercial license, which is when you’re considered to be a professional pilot because now you can get paid for your professional services.”
She adds, “There are a lot of women who are saving money when they can and paying for their flight training just hour by hour, which is $250 per flight hour. So winning a scholarship from us lifts that financial burden from them.”
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SOS members mentor their student trainees all the way to becoming professional pilots, and SOS members and mentors themselves, which is increasing their numbers. “And with the pilot shortage in the industry right now, we have a seat at the big table. So we get recognized and sponsored by pretty much every major airline: Delta, United, American, Alaska, UPS and more,” Hughes adds. Their annual fundraising gala is coming up on February 11, 2023, in Houston. “And it’s really a powerful gala because there’s so much Black excellence in the room,” Hughes says with pride.
Another thing Hughes is very proud of is the SOS “Girls Rock Wings” (GROW) program. “It’s a full immersion introduction to aviation,” boasts Hughes. “We work with girls from sixth through 12th grades, and they get to go flying with a Black female pilot, tour the air traffic control tower, and there’s a museum portion,” Hughes explains. “This year, we were in Dallas and the girls got to tour the Commemorative Air Force, which includes the history of the Tuskegee Airmen.” She adds, “We have a station called ‘See It to Believe It' where we have a bunch of pilot uniforms where the girls can dress up as pilots and take pictures in a photo booth, and they also do confidence-building exercises.”
The girls get to fly in a Cessna 172 or Piper Archer four-seater aircraft with one engine. “It’s the first plane that we all learned how to fly on,” Hughes discloses. “And for many of the young girls, it’s the first time they’ve ever been in an airplane. A lot of them show up scared, but after the flight, the smiles on their faces say it all,” she exclaims.
According to Hughes, out of the 50 girls that go through the GROW program, they usually get about 10 percent who say they want to become a pilot. The program started in Houston and moved to Dallas this year where it was sponsored by American Airlines. “Next year, United Airlines will be hosting in Denver and after that, possibly Delta Airlines will sponsor us in Atlanta,” notes Hughes. SOS advertises the program on social media, at schools, at churches and more. It’s first come, first served and the sponsoring airlines cover all of the expenses.
Soaring to Higher Heights
Hughes says SOS is working on getting more sponsors so they can increase the amount of their scholarships. “I’d like us to get to the point where we’re not just offering $5,000 scholarships but would be able to foster one lady’s entire pilot career with $100,000,” Hughes sighs. She also wants to see the organization expand internationally.
As for her own company, she’s proud that she was the fifth Black woman pilot at UPS and that they hired three more Black women pilots a year after she started. And she’s looking forward to the time when she can be promoted from first officer to captain. “The captain is usually the more experienced one. They are in charge of everything – the multi-million-dollar jet and all the people or cargo that’s onboard,” says Hughes. “The first officer is the co-pilot. They both fly different legs of the flight. The natural progression is for me to become a captain and be paid the big bucks to make the big decisions,” she laughs.
“At UPS, you’re eligible after five years. And for all of the airlines, promotions are seniority based – so there’s no bias with promotions,” she affirms. “Once I become a captain, that will be the epitome of my career,” she states. “But for now, I’ll continue to enjoy the ride. The view never gets old up there.”
For more information on Sisters of the Skies, visit their website. And for information on their upcoming programs and events, visit their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram pages. Finally, to follow First Officer Angel Hughes’ “Unpacking with CargoBae” episodes, check her out on Instagram, TikTok and YouTube.