African American Transportation History: Brenda E. Robinson, Aviation Pioneer

On June 6, 1980, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Brenda E. Robinson earned her Wings of Gold at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi in Texas. This made her the first black woman to become a U.S. naval aviator. The following year, Robinson made history again when she became the first black woman certified for C-1A carrier onboard delivery carrier landings. She ultimately completed a total of 115 of those landings while transporting passengers, mail, and cargo to aircraft carriers. Other milestones that Robinson achieved during her time in the Navy included being the first black woman to serve as both a flight instructor and VIP transport pilot for that military branch.

Robinson, who was born in 1956, grew up in the Philadelphia suburb of North Wales. By the time she was nine years old, she had developed a strong interest in aviation. This enthusiasm for airborne travel served Robinson in good stead at the age of 11, when her father promised to allow her to fly to Illinois to visit a cousin if she did well academically in school that year. The prospect of a first-time plane trip was enough to motivate her to get good grades and earn that United Airlines flight between Philadelphia and Chicago.

After graduating from high school, Robinson attended Dowling College on Long Island. She became the first black woman in that college’s history to graduate with a degree in aeronautics. The next chapter in Robinson’s life encompassed her trailblazing career as a naval aviator.

In 1992, Robinson transitioned to the U.S. Naval Reserve (now called the U.S. Navy Reserve). That same year, she became one of the first black female pilots at American Airlines. Robinson served as a pilot for that airline for 17 years. A photo of her is now prominently displayed at the American Airlines Flight Academy in Fort Worth, Texas. In 2016, Robinson was inducted into the WAI (Women in Aviation International) Pioneer Hall of Fame.

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Defense

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