Jill Elaine Brown became the first African American woman to serve as a pilot for a major U.S airline when she was hired by Texas international Airlines at the age of 28. Her passion for flying began as a teenager, leading her into the U.S. Navy flight training program where she became its first African American female trainee in 1974.
Brown was born in 1950 in Baltimore, Maryland. Her father Gilbert Brown owned a construction company, and her mother Elaine was an art teacher in the Baltimore school district. The family owned a farm in West Virginia, and by the age of nine Brown had learned to operate a tractor and perform what her father termed “men’s work.” When she turned 17, the entire Brown family took flying lessons. Brown devoted all of her free time to learning how to fly and became the first in her family to receive a pilot’s license. Her first solo flight was in a Piper J-3 Cub. When the family acquired its own plane, a single-engine Piper Cherokee 180D, she became particularly popular with friends whom she took up on short flights. Brown described these flights as trips on Brown’s United Airlines.
After high school, Brown attended the University of Maryland, graduating with a degree in home economics in 1972. She accepted a teaching job in Massachusetts but realized that her true love was flying. In 1974 she signed up for flight training in the U.S Navy, making her the first African American woman to be admitted to the program. Finding the constraints of military protocols difficult, Brown left the program with an honorable discharge after just six months.
After reading an article about Warren H. Wheeler, founder of the first African American owned-and-operated airlines. Brown persuaded Wheeler to grant her an interview. She was hired as a ticket-counter clerk at the airline’s headquarters in Durham, North Carolina. Brown eventually worked her way up to become a pilot at Wheeler Airlines, where she logged enough hours to apply as a pilot for a major airline.
Brown left Wheeler Airlines in 1978 for Texas International Airlines, becoming the first African American woman pilot for a major airline. Brown was 28 and one of six women in a class of 38 who graduated from Texas International’s training program. It was her belief that the airline only hired her because of her race, however, and she left the company after a year to join Zantop International Airlines, a cargo carrier headquartered near Detroit, Michigan. Brown remained at Zantop until 1985.
In 1990 she filed a lawsuit against United Airlines charging racial and sexual discrimination after being rejected for employment three times. The case was decided in favor of United Airlines. Brown appealed, and it was again decided in favor of the airlines in 1997. Brown now advocates for the rights of African American aviators.