Washington, Patrice Clarke 1961—
Patrice Clarke Washington 1961—
When you live in the Bahamas it’s practically a given that you’ll do your shopping in Florida. “I remember many, many summers growing up when, as soon as we were done with school, we were on a plane headed for Miami,” the now 35-year-old Chicagoan told CBB in a telephone interview. Virtually every summer, Christmas, and Easter school breaks, Washington, her mother, and two sisters would board a plane for the short hop across the water to visit with family members in the States to stock up on essentials. Accordingly, airline travel became second nature to this young Bahamian girl. And, somewhere up there in the clouds, above the shimmery blue of the Carribean, the bug bit-Washington decided she was going to fly planes for a living.
More than anything, she was determined to see the world beyond her lush, tropical island. And remarkably, nobody stopped her, nobody discouraged her, nobody said: You’re female, you’re black, you can’t do these things. So Washington pressed on, despite the cultural and economic odds. And she succeeded far beyond anyone’s expectations, including her own. In 1994, while working as first officer on DC-8 for United Parcel Service, she was promoted to captain—the nation’s, and possibly the world’s, first black commercial airline captain.
Washington’s “first” was especially significant considering that there are fewer than a dozen black female pilots on major airlines, according to the Organization of Black Airline Pilots. Of UPS’s own 1,650 pilots, only 59 percent are black and only 86 are women. Washington is the only one who is both black and female.
Of course, women had been flying planes for six decades, inspired by role models like Amelia Earhart in the 1930s and by the Women’s Air Service Pilots of World War II. African Americans, however, had to fight their way in. After WWII ended in 1945, none of the 992 Tuskegee Airmen were able to get a job in commercial aviation. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, it took a succession of lawsuits by black pilots against airlines—and eventually one brought by the Justice Department against United Airlines—to weed out the entrenched discrimination.
These facts were unknown to the Bahamian teen-ager with her head in the clouds. “Growing up in the Bahamas I didn’t have that consciousness about race,” Washington said. All around her were black professionals and blacks in government leadership posts. “So when someone said ‘no,’ as far as I was concerned it was no because ’this is the way it had to be. ’ I didn’t relate to people and life in terms of black, white, male, or female. It was, 1 can do the job or I can’t.’” As for the fact that she was a woman entering a man’s world, perhaps the chief influence there was the fact that she grew up in an environment where male and female roles were blissfully combined.
Born Patrice Francise Clarke on September 11,1961. In Nassau, Bahamas; son of Nathaniel and Peggy Ann (now Lundy) Clarke. Married Ray Washington, February, 1994, Education: Attended Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Ffeu Graduated in April 1982 with a commercial pilot’s certificate and B.S. in aeronautical science.
Worked as a pilot for a charter company, Trans Island Airways, in the Bahamas, 1982-84. Flew as a first officer with Bahamasair 1984*88. Hired as a flight engineer for United Parcel Service May 1988; promoted to first officer, January 1990; upgraded to captain November, 1994. Believed to be first African American female pilot with a commercial airline.
Awards: Honoree for female trailblazer award, National Coalition of Federal Aviation Employees, 1995; honoree, Organization of Black Airline Pilots, 1995.
Addresses: Office —c/o United Parcel Service, 911 Grade Lane, Building 2, Louisville, KY 40213.
Born in Nassau, Bahamas on September 11, 1961, Patrice Clarke was only five-years-old when her parents, Peggy Ann and Nathaniel Clarke, divorced. Her father then faded almost completely from her life. As for her mother, Peggy Ann Lundy would later become involved in a long-term romantic relationship and eventually marry Leo John Lundy when Patrice was almost an adult. But, primarily, hers was a childhood without men. “I think maybe the lack of male role models [in my life] had a little to do with the decision [to become a pilot] because my head was never filled with the boy thing/girl thing,” Washington said. “I wasn’t told that ’the boys take out the garbage and the girls do the dishes.’” “Because there were no boys in our house, we did it all.”
Washington’s family included her mother and two younger sisters: Natasha, two years her junior, andLynette (who was adopted), 13 years her junior. There was a big extended family that cared for the girls while Peggy Ann Lundy was away working, first as a nurse’s aide and later as the manager of a bar/restaurant. “There were tough times,” Washington remembered. “She seemed to make things work... She worked her butt off for us. She was always gone. We had one day with her—Sundays.” But Nassau “was safe, and being a relatively small island, family were real close... within two to three miles of our house. The family network is what made the difference.”
Washington decided to apply to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, her mother, she recalls, was “awestruck.” Perhaps it was her career choice, perhaps it was the stratospheric cost flying school combined with a four-year college degree entails. Still, Peggy Ann Lundy never voiced a single objection, Washington remembers; she just worked all the harder to put her daughter through college.
At Embry-Riddle, young Patrice studied aerodynamics, meteorology, and physics along with the usual subjects; besides these subjects, the biggest distinction her campus had was the 210 hours she put in learning to fly. A Bahamian citizen (the Bahamas had already become independent of Great Britain), Washington went through other changes: She felt pulled to her adopted country, the United States and sought and won official residency here shortly after college graduation. Though she ultimately decided not to follow the usual career path pilots do-through the military. To be understood by her American peers, she realized she had to drop some of the British words she used, along with the lilting, broken English of her Bahamian upbringing.
She graduated in April of 1982 with a B.S. in aeronautical science. It was a recession year and a terrible time to be job-hunting. Finally giving up on a United States-based pilot’s job, she returned, dejected, to Nassau that summer. Butluck was on her side after all; shewashired by Trans Island Airways that September. At Trans Island she found immense satisfaction, flying charters around the Bahamas, South Florida, Haiti, and Grand Cayman. Finally, she was being allowed to fly over open water. And, seated at the helm of tiny six-and-ten-seater Aztecs and Islanders, she couldn’t have been happier. The scenery, the new people she was meeting, and even the occasional gut-wrenching thunderstorms—it was the world she wanted.
But eventually Washington realized she wanted a bigger world and the chance to fly to its furthest reaches. So, in October of 1984, she accepted a job with Bahamasair, a much larger airline, where she could fly Boeing 737s to points as far away as Atlanta and New York. She had taken a giant step up to her eventual goal. Yet three-and-a-half years later, she was job-hunting again. “The point in time came when I got tired doing the same thing, which was flying the Bahamas and South Florida. After you’ve done that so many times, it gets old.” So Washington began interviewing at major U.S. airlines, and eventually she landed-at UPS.
Initially, Washington worked as a flight engineer on three-crew member flights, from UPS’s home flight base in Louisville, Kentucky, to places like Anchorage, Alaska; Sydney, Australia, and Cologne, Germany. As a flight engineer, it was her job to check fuel levels and systems operation. But she yearned to get her hands on the controls of the huge cargo DC-8s she was helping to operate.
Still, she was realizing her dream of getting around the globe. Flying to Alaska, for instance, she saw her first glacier, something she had only read about in school in the tropics. “When I saw the glaciers for the first time my mind went back to geography class, my eyes watered, and I was filled with emotion,” Washington has written in a short autobiographical article.
In her personal life there was another emotional high. In February of 1994 she married Ray Washington, a pilot for American Airlines whom she met at an Organization of Black Airline Pilots convention. A little over a year later, she was pregnant with their first child.
But her professional career was moving slowly, and the young Bahamian who had rarely thought of race or gender as controlling factors was starting to think about them now. She yearned to be promoted to first officer so she could fly UPS’s planes directly. “The hard times,” she says, “were when I started to realize I was being treated differently either because of my sex and or because of my race.” During an upgrade test flight at UPS, for instance, when she was being considered for a first officer upgrade, she was paired with a trainer who decided she was not capable of the upgrade. She wondered why.
But she still was not making the connection, she remembers. Then she was paired with a second trainerwho also refused to pass her. During one flight, she says he told her, “’I understand you only have about 1,000 hours [flight time]. And when he said that, I understood exactly what time it was. I looked at him and said,” No, sir, Ihave about 1000 hours flying a Boeing 737. “Inotherwords, what he was saying to me was” You’re a low-time pilot, you don’t deserve this job/And, ’basically we’re not going to pass you, so you can go sit as an engineer for a few more years and try it later.’” The male pilot training alongside her passed the course.
Despite the hitches, however, Washington was finally promoted to first officer, in January 1990. Then, in November of 1994 she was promoted again—this time to captain. It was a hard-won first for African Americans. As Washington told Time magazine, “Airlinesonly hired us because they were sued.”
According to Time, Korean War pilot Marlon Green sued Continental Airlines, winning a favorable ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court in 1962 that opened the door for black pilots to work for commercial airlines. But the fight was not yet won. In 1973 the U.S. Justice Department won its own landmark case against United Airlines when a federal court found entrenched discrimination and ordered United to hire blacks at twice the percentage of black applicants. American Airlines also was affected; it subsequently dropped its 5-foot, 6-inch height requirement which had nothing to do with flying airplanes, but did leave many women in the wings of the profession. And, USAir agreed to drop its nepotism requirements that also left many women out—because they weren’t members of the boys club that was the traditional pilots community.
Despite these rulings, enforcement lagged. In 1988 the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission went back to court against United on behalf of hundreds of rejected African Americans and women. United responded, recruiting minority pilots and paying for their training to boost their numbers from 2.6 percent to 8.1 percent of the total. In the female-pilot category, United increased its numbers from 1.5 percent to 5.5 percent. The result? “Things have changed significantly in the airline industry,” Washington said. “I’m just going to be 35 [years-old], and I’m a captain—that was basically unheard of [in the recent past]. Particularly for me to be flying with people who are older than me and subordinate to me. So things have changed.”
She wants to continue that trend. To young people interested in flying, she advises taking a serious look at the military as the route in; flight training is normally too expensive for most young people, especially those from low-income backgrounds. She also points to some limited scholarship aid from groups like the Organization of Black Airline Pilots.
Most importantly, she advises youths to disregard the lack of black and female role models—particularly in the still largely white male military. She suggests youths hold fast to their dreams, the way she did. “My point of view has always been that if there’s something you want to do, go ahead and do it,” Washington said. “I’ve always been pretty well focused and once I decided on something, I did it.”
“The Still Unfriendly Skies,” Time, August 28, 1995.
“Pilot flies where no other Black woman has flown before,” Emerge, May 1995, p. 11.
“Pilot inspires others to follow her lead,” Atlanta Constitution, January 25, 1995, p. D-3.
Personal Interview with Patricia Clarke Washington, Aprilo, 1995.
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