Captain Theresa M. Claiborne

Theresa was born on May 25, 1959 to Morris Claiborne Sr. and Dorothy Claiborne in Emporia, Virginia. As a military dependent, she traveled the world. She graduated with honors from Elk Grove Sr. High School and attended California State University of Sacramento where she majored in Media Communications with a minor in Journalism. She also attended the University of California at Berkeley for Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corp (ROTC). On June 20, 1981, she was commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force. 

She attended Undergraduate Pilot Training at Laughlin AFB, TX and graduated on September 16, 1982, Class 82-08 as the FIRST AFRICAN AMERICAN FEMALE PILOT in the USAF. Theresa served on active duty for seven years at Castle Air Force Base in California and Loring Air Force Base in Maine, flying the KC-135A aircraft. She left active duty in September 1988 and joined the USAF Reserve on the day after her active duty commitment ended. She reported to the 940th ARW at Mather Air Force Base in California, where she served as both an instructor pilot on the KC-135E and a flight commander. She was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel on November 1, 2001. Ms. Claiborne retired on January 6, 2003, as a Major, a command and instructor pilot with over 3000 military flight hours. 

On January 15, 1990, Theresa took off on another mission in her life. She joined United Airlines as a pilot on a Boeing 727. She has since been qualified and flown a Boeing 737, 757, and 767. She is currently flying a Boeing 747-400 to Asia and Europe and has accumulated a total of over 15,000 civilian flying hours. She is one of 14 African American female pilots at United Airlines. 

Theresa has received numerous awards, both civilian and military. Some of them include: Tuskegee Airmen Award of Merit – 1983, Western Region Tuskegee Airmen Award “Those Who Make It Possible” – 1984, “Wendell O Pruitt Award” – 1985. A few of her military awards include the Air Force Meritorious Service Medal, Air Force Commendation Medal, National Defense Service Medal, and the Southwest Asia Campaign Medal (Persian Gulf ). 

Theresa has been featured in numerous national publications including Ebony, Jet, and Essence Magazines. She is an accomplished public/motivational speaker and has spoken across the nation. She has been featured on several documentaries about women in aviation and can be seen on the “Black Americans In Flight” mural at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport. 

“My mother always told me, ‘You have to be twice as good.’ That’s why I was always so hard on myself,” Theresa says. You have to be twice as good. It’s a phrase that many African Americans heard as children, foreshadowing the inequality that they were likely to face at some point in their lives. Theresa used that as her motivation to not only flourish over her 26-plus year career at United, but also in becoming the first African American woman pilot in the United States Air Force.

Return to full list of PIONEERS IN AVIATION